interview with ken wilber
the seven points of timeless wisdom
conducted by treya killam wilber
(reprinted from grace and grit,
© ken wilber, 1991, 2000)
- spirit exists.
- spirit is found within.
- most of us don't realize this spirit within, however,
because we are living in a world of sin, separation, and duality--that
is, we are living in a fallen or illusory state.
- there is a way out of this fallen state of sin
and illusion, there is a path to our liberation.
- if we follow this path to its conclusion, the result
is a rebirth or enlightenment, a direct experience of spirit within,
a supreme liberation, which--
- marks the end of sin and suffering, and which--
- issues in social action of mercy and compassion
on behalf of all sentient beings.
tkw: let's go
over them one at a time. spirit exists.
kw: spirit exists. god exists, a supreme
reality exists. brahman, dharmakaya, kether, tao, allah, shiva, yahweh,
aton--"they call him many who is really one."
tkw: but how do you know spirit exists?
the mystics say it does, but on what do they base their claims?
kw: on direct experience. their claims
are based, not on mere beliefs or ideas, theories or dogmas, but rather
on direct experience, actual spiritual experience. this is what sets
the mystic apart from merely dogmatic religious beliefs.
tkw: but what about the argument that
the mystical experience is not valid knowledge because it is ineffable
and therefore incommunicable?
kw: the mystical experience is indeed
ineffable, or not capable of being entirely put into words. like any
experience--a sunset, eating a piece of cake, listening to bach--one
has to have the actual experience to see what it's like. but we don't
therefore conclude that sunset, cake, and music don't exist or aren't
valid. further, even though the mystical experience is largely ineffable,
it can be communicated or transmitted. namely, by taking up spiritual
practice under the guidance of a spiritual master or teacher, just like,
for example, judo can be taught but not spoken. . the mystics ask you
to take nothing on mere belief. rather, they give you a set of experiments
to test in your own awareness or experience. the laboratory is your
own mind, the experiment is meditation. you yourself try it, and compare
your test results with others who have performed the experiment. out
of this consensually validated pool of experiential knowledge, you arrive
at certain laws of the spirit-at certain "profound truths", if you will.
and the first is: god is.
tkw: so that brings us back to the perennial
philosophy, or mystical philosophy, and seven of its major points. the
second was, spirit within.
kw: spirit within, there is a universe
within. the stunning message of the mystics is that in the very core
of your being, you are god. strictly speaking, god is neither within
nor without-spirit transcends all duality. but one discovers this by
consistently looking within, until "within" becomes "beyond". the most
famous version of this perennial truth occurs in the chandogya upanishad,
where it says, "in this very being of yours, you do not perceive the
true, but there in fact it is. in that which is the subtle essence of
your own being, all that exists has its self. an invisible and subtle
essence is the spirit of the whole universe. that is the true, that
is the self, and thou, thou art that."
thou art that--tat tvam asi. needless to say, the "thou"
that is "that," the you that is god, is not your individual and isolated
self or ego, this or that self, mr. or ms. so-and-so. in fact, the individual
self or ego is precisely what blocks the realization of the supreme
identity in the first place. rather, the "you" in question is the deeper
part of you--or, if you wish, the highest part of you--the subtle essence,
as the upanishad put it, that transcends your mortal ego and directly
partakes of the divine. in judaism it is called the ruach, the divine
and supraindividual spirit in each and every person, and not the nefesh,
or the individual ego. in christianity, it is the indwelling pneuma
or spirit that is of one essence with god, and not the individual psyche
or soul, which at best can worship god. i think this is the only way
to understand, for example, christ's otherwise strange remarks that
a person could not be a true christian "unless he hateth his own soul."
it is only by "hating" or "throwing out" or "transcending" your mortal
soul that you can discover your immortal spirit, one with all.
tkw: st. paul said, "i live, yet not
i, but christ in me." you're saying that st. paul discovered his true
self, which is one with christ, and this replaced his old or lower self,
his individual soul or psyche.
kw: yes. your ruach, or ground, is the
supreme reality, not your nefesh, or ego. obviously, if you think that
your individual ego is god, you're in big trouble. you would, in fact,
be suffering from psychoses, from paranoid schizophrenia. that's obviously
not what the world's greatest philosophers and sages have in mind.
tkw: but why, then, aren't more people
aware of that? if spirit is in fact within, why isn't it obvious to
kw: well, that's the third point. if
i am really one with god, why don't i realize that? something must separate
me from spirit. why this fall? what's the sin?
tkw: it's not eating an apple.
it's not eating an apple.
the various traditions give many
answers to this question, but they all essentially come down to this:
i cannot perceive my own true identity, or my union with spirit, because
my awareness is clouded and obstructed by a certain activity that i
am now engaged in. and that activity, although known by many different
names, is simply the activity of contracting and focusing awareness
on my individual self or personal ego. my awareness is not open, relaxed,
and god-centered, it is closed, contracted, and self-centered. and precisely
because i am identified with the self-contraction to the exclusion of
everything else, i can't find or discover my prior identity, my true
identity, with the all. my individual nature, "the natural man," is
thus fallen, or lives in sin and separation and alienation from spirit
and from the rest of the world. i am set apart and isolated from the
world "out there," which i perceive as if it were entirely external
and hostile to my own being. and as for my own being itself, it certainly
does not seem to be one with the all, one with everything that exists,
one with infinite spirit; rather, it seems completely boxed up and imprisoned
in this isolated wall of mortal flesh.
tkw: this situation is often called "dualism",
kw: yes, that's right. i split myself
as "subject" apart from the world of "objects" out there, and then based
upon this original dualism, i continue to split the world into all sorts
of conflicting opposites: pleasure versus pain, good versus evil, true
versus false, and so on. and according to the perennial philosophy,
awareness dominated by the self-contraction, by the subject/object dualism,
cannot perceive reality as it is, reality in its wholeness, reality
as the supreme identity. sin, in other words, is the self-contraction,
the separate-self sense, the ego. sin is not something the self does,
it is something the self is.
furthermore, the self-contraction, the isolated subject
"in here," precisely because it does not recognize its true identity
with the all, feels an acute sense of lack, of deprivation, of fragmentation.
the separate self-self sense, in other words, is born in suffering-it
is born "fallen." suffering is not something that happens to the separate
self, it is something that is inherent in the separate self. "sin,"
"suffering," and "self" are so many names for the same process, the
same contraction or fragmentation of awareness. you cannot rescue the
self from suffering. as gautama buddha put it, to end suffering you
must end the self-they rise and fall together.
tkw: so this dualistic world is a fallen
world, and the original sin is the self-contraction, in each of us.
and you're saying that not just the eastern mystics but also the western
mystics actually define sin and hell as being due to the separate self?
kw: the separate self and its loveless
grasping, desiring, avoiding--yes, definitely. it's true that the equation
of hell or samsara with the separate self is strongly emphasized in
the east, particularly in hinduism and buddhism. but you find an essentially
similar theme in the writings of the catholic, gnostic, quaker, kabbalistic
and islamic mystics. my favorite is from the remarkable william law,
an eighteenth-century christian mystic from england; i'll read it to
you: "see here the whole truth in short. all sin, death, damnation,
and hell is nothing else but this kingdom of self, or the various operations
of self-love, self-esteem, and self-seeking which separate the soul
from god and end in eternal death and hell." or remember the great islamic
mystic jalaluddin rumi's famous saying, "if you have not seen the devil,
look at your own self".
tkw: yes, i see. so the transcendence
of the "small self" is the discovery of the "big self".
kw: yes. this
"small self" or individual soul is known in sanskrit as the ahamkara,
which means "knot" or "contraction", and it is this ahamkara, this dualistic
or egocentric contraction in awareness, that is at the root of our fallen
but that brings us to the fourth
major point of the perennial philosophy: there is a way to reverse this
fall, a way to reverse this brutal state of affairs, a way to untie
the knot of illusion.
tkw: ditch the small self.
ditch the small self, yes. surrender or die to the separate-self sense,
the small self, the self-contraction. if we want to discover our identity
with the all, then our case of mistaken identity with the isolated ego
must be let go. now this fall can be reversed instantly by understanding
that in reality it never actually happened-there is only god, the separate
self is an illusion. but for most of us, the fall has to be reversed
gradually, step by step.
in other words, the fourth point
of the perennial philosophy is that a path exists--a path that, if followed
properly, will lead us from our fallen state to our enlightened state,
from samsara to nirvana, from hell to heaven. as plotinus put it, a
flight of the alone to the alone-that is, from the self to the self.
tkw: this path is meditation?
kw: well, we might say that there are
several "paths" that constitute what i am generically calling "the path".
for example, in hinduism it is said that there are five major paths
or yogas. "yoga" simply means "union", a way to unite the soul with
godhead. in english the word is "yoke". when christ says, "my yoke is
easy," he means "my yoga is easy".
the point is that. an individual on the path transcends
the small self, or dies to the small self, and thus rediscovers or resurrects
his or her supreme identity with universal spirit. and that brings us
to the fifth major point of the perennial philosophy, namely, that of
a rebirth, resurrection, or enlightenment. in your own being, the small
self must die so that the big self may resurrect.
this death and new birth is described in several different
terms by the traditions. in christianity, of course, it finds its prototype
in the figures of adam and jesus--adam, whom the mystics call the "old
man" or "outer man," is said to have opened the gates of hell, while
jesus christ, the "new man" or "inner man," opens the gates of paradise.
specifically, jesus' own death and resurrection, according to the mystics,
is the archetype of the death of the separate self and the resurrection
of a new and eternal destiny from the stream of consciousness, namely
the divine or christic self and its ascension. as st. augustine said,
"god became man so that man may become god." this process of turning
from "manhood" to godhood," or from the outer person to the inner person,
or from the self to the self, is known in christianity as metanoia,
which means both "repentance" and "transformation"-we repent of the
self (or sin) and transform as the self (or christ), so that, as you
said, "not i but christ liveth in me" ...
in both hinduism and buddhism, this death-and-resurrection
is always described as the death of the individual soul (jivatman) and
the reawakening of one's true nature, which metaphorically the hindus
describe as all being (brahman) and the buddhists as pure openness (shunyata).
the actual moment of rebirth or breakthrough is known as enlightenment
or liberation (moksha or bodhi). the lankavatara sutra describes this
enlightenment experience as a "complete turning about in the deepest
seat of consciousness." this "turning about" is simply the undoing of
the habitual tendency to create a separate and substantial self where
there is in fact only vast, open, clear awareness. this turning about
or metanoia, zen calls satori or kensho. "ken" means true nature and
"sho" means "directly seeing". directly seeing one's true nature is
becoming buddha. as meister eckhart put it, "in this breaking through
i find that god and i are both the same."
tkw: is enlightenment actually experienced
as a real death, or is that just a common metaphor?
ego--death, yes. it's no metaphor. the accounts of this experience,
which may be very dramatic but can also be fairly simple and nondramatic,
make it clear that all of a sudden you simply wake up and discover that,
among other things, your real being is everything you are now looking
at, that you are literally one with all manifestation, one with the
universe, however corny that might sound, and that you did not actually
become one with god and all, you have eternally been that oneness but
didn't realize it.
along with that feeling, or the
discovery of the all-pervading self, goes the very concrete feeling
that your small self simply died, actually died. zen calls satori "the
great death." eckhart was just as blunt: "the soul," he said, "must
put itself to death".
tkw: dying to the small self is the
discovery of eternity.
kw: [long pause] yes, provided we don't
think of eternity as being everlasting time but a point without time,
the so-called eternal present or timeless now. the self doesn't live
forever in time, it lives in the timeless present prior to time, prior
to history, change, succession. the self is present as pure presence,
not as everlasting duration, a rather horrible notion.
anyway, that brings us to the sixth major point of the
perennial philosophy, namely, that enlightenment or liberation brings
an end to suffering. gautama buddha, for example, said that he only
taught two things, what causes suffering, and how to end it. what causes
suffering is the grasping and desiring of the separate self, and what
ends it is the meditative path that transcends self and desire. the
point is that suffering is inherent in the knot or contraction known
as self, and the only way to end suffering is to end the self. it's
not that after enlightenment, or after spiritual practice in general,
you no longer feel pain or anguish or fear or hurt. you do. it's simply
that they no longer threaten your existence, and so they cease to be
problematic. you are no longer identified with them, dramatizing them,
energizing them, threatened by them. on the one hand, there is no longer
any fragmented self to threaten, and on the other, the big self can't
be threatened since, being the all, there is nothing outside of it that
could harm it. a profound relaxing and uncoiling occurs in the heart.
the individual realizes that, no matter how much suffering might occur,
it doesn't fundamentally affect his or her real being. suffering comes
and goes, but the person now possesses the "peace that surpasseth understanding."
the sage feels suffering, but it doesn't "hurt." because the sage is
aware of suffering, he or she is motivated by compassion, by a desire
to help all those who suffer and think it's real.
tkw: which brings us to the seventh
point, about enlightened motivation.
kw: yes. true enlightenment is said
to issue in social action driven by mercy, compassion, and skillful
means, in an attempt to help all beings attain the supreme liberation.
enlightened activity is simply selfless service. since we are all one
in the same self, or the same mystical body of christ, or the same dharmakaya,
then in serving others i am serving my own self. i think when christ
said, "love your neighbor as yourself," he must have meant "love your
neighbor as your self."
tkw: thank you.
me ... "is a wonderful book.
combining deep personal experience and creative imagination, martin
boroson has succeeded in conveying in a simple and easily understandable
form the wisdom of the perennial spiritual teachings concerning the
creation of the world we live in and our own nature. -- stanislav grof,
from grace and grit © 1991,2000 by ken wilber.
by arrangement with shambhala publications, inc., boston. www.shambhala.com