Transcendental Sociology

Originally published

The Laughing Man Magazine

Vol. 4, No. 4, 1983

The true guru is not “chosen” by the disciple. Rather, at some point the disciple realizes that he is already involved in a prior, indelible relationship to the spiritual master—he is being meditated. However, until that realization dawns on the disciple, he seeks through various means to discover the best path and the “right” guru. In the course of his seeking he may actually choose to align himself with one or more teachers. If his choices are unwise, many years can be wasted in fruitless effort. Ultimately, the mind’s doubting search must yield to the heart’s intuitive certainty, but until then, the seeker would do well to exercise the discriminative intelligence developed in the third stage of life.

How can one determine whether or not a spiritual teacher is authentic and legitimate? In this article David C. Lane explores the pros and cons of transpersonal psychologist Ken Wilber’s answer to this question.

Prefatory Note

David Christopher Lane, 2015

In his books A Sociable God (1983) and Eye to Eye (1983), Ken Wilber, Editor-in-Chief of ReVision Journal, postulates that modern sociology can benefit from a dialogue with transpersonal psychology. Drawing from his research into the “perennial philosophy,” Wilber argues for a non-reductionistic approach to the study of new religious movements, one which is rooted on a transcendental structuralism. Wilber stresses that such an encompassing paradigm, which takes into account the various stages of human evolution (beginning at the lowest level of man’s development and culminating in God-Realization), can serve as a critical corrective to the reductionistic theories that are so prevalent today, such as Freud’s “religion as wish fulfillment”; Marx’s “religion as the opiate of the people”; and Carl Sagan’s “God as vague birth memories of the obstetrician.”

Wilber’s methodology, accordingly, salvages the relative truths of each academic discipline (e.g., psychoanalysis: obviously some religious beliefs are just manifestations of repressed guilt), while it at the same time determines, in terms of overall sociological theory, whether or not a particular religious engagement is higher than another. For instance, Wilber points out that there is a fundamental difference between a sangat of meditating Zen monks and a clan of deluded Jim Jones devotees. The former is transrational (the monks take their intelligence with them into satori); whereas the latter is pre-rational (Jonestown members forsook their individuality for regressive magical-mythic belonging).

Wilber’s radical analysis, based in part upon the work of Jurgen Habermas, attaches phenomenology and its main tool hermeneutics to a hierarchical structuralism. This marriage enables scholars to assess various religious claims so as to determine their relative degree of authenticity and legitimacy. Writes Wilber: “This overall hierarchization is extremely significant because it apparently gives us—perhaps for the first time—a paradigm to adjudicate the comparative degree of validity of various psychosocial productions (including religious expressions).

The following article will examine Wilber’s methodology in more detail, concentrating on some highlights of his new model.

1. Ken Wilber, A Sociable God: A Brief Introduction to a Transcendental Sociology (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1983), p. 17.


The Structural Valuation of New Religious Movements

Arc all the new religious movements qualitatively the same? Is there a fundamental difference between groups like Paramahansa Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship and L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology? Swami Prabhupada’s International Society for Krishna Consciousness and Reverend Moon’s Unification Church? Or, Kirpal Singh’s Ruhani Satsang and Paul Twitchell’s Eckankar?

According to Wilber, there most definitely is, precisely because not all religious movements have the same spiritual goal nor the same teachings and techniques. Simply put, the new religions are social reflections of man’s own ontogenetic growth. Not everyone has attained Piaget’s stage of “formal-operational,” or Maslow’s level of “self-actualization,” or Loevinger’s “integrated ego,” or Aurobindo’s “Ideamind.” Rather, what we see in human development is a stratification of various levels of structural adaptation. It is Wilber’s contention that religious movements likewise image this same type of disparity.

The crucial question, therefore, is not whether or not there are differences between the new religions, but how one can accurately judge the differences. Elaborates Wilber:

“It appears that not all the ‘new religions’ are merely sophomoric platitudes or mind-numbing cultisms. The great problem, of course, is how to tell the difference. That is, how to devise any sort of believable scale or criteria for differentiating the more valid ‘religious movements’ from the less valid or even harmful. This is all the more urgent for those who are striving to present a ‘new and higher’ or comprehensive transcendental paradigm, simply because a considerable portion of the transcendental claims of the new paradigm is prompted by or even based on some of the new and specifically mystical religions, and we had better be able to offer believable criteria for differentiating that select ‘some’ (e.g., Zen) from the rest (e.g., Charles Manson). To Zen scholars, this might seem an outrageously unfair equation, but the simple fact is that the public at large—and many influential scholars— have already simply lumped together, under the single title of ‘those new religions,’ all endeavors that are nonorthodox in their religious claims. The

burden of ‘dc-lumping’ or differentiating these in fact quite different endeavors accordingly falls now, unfairly, on the genuinely transcendental scholars . . ,”2

Although Wilber admits that a number of models could be offered in order to structurally appraise many of the new religious movements, he explicitly posits and favors his own template, one which has been primarily influenced by his study of Zen Buddhism, Vedanta, Hegelian philosophy, the works of developmental psychologists (e.g., Piaget) and most particularly the writings of Da Free John. For instance, it is striking to notice the difference in Wilber’s terminology after he discovered The Paradox

2. Ken Wilber, Eye to Eye: The Quest for the New Paradigm (New York: Anchor Books. 1983). p. 248.
of Instruction by Da Free John. Compare Wilber’s ontological schema in No Boundary (1979) with his Atman Project (1980). The primary variances between both models are due to Da Free John’s revolutionary writings on the variety of spiritual paths. Wilber, likewise, acknowledges Da Free John and his influence, calling the Adept “a religious genius of the ultimate degree.”

Wilber’s outline on the development of consciousness can be summarized in several ways, the most concise being a tripartite circle comprised of 1) the pre-personal. pre-rational, or the subconscious; 2) the personal, rational, or selfconscious; and 3) the trans-personal, trans-rational, or superconscious. Each of these stages is composed of further sublevels, in his book A Sociable God,

Wilber breaks down his hierarchical schema into ten major divisions:

Archaic (1-3), the lowest stage of human evolution, which includes the physical substratum of the organism, sensorimotor cognition, and the sheath of bioenergy: emotional-sexual functions.

Magic (4), the beginning of the mental realms; this includes simple images, symbols, and the first rudimentary concepts.

Mythic (5). the beginning of concrete operational thinking and a beginning of perspectivism (or communal roletaking).

Rational (6), the first structure that can not only think about the world but think about thinking; it is self-reflexive and introspective.

Psychic (7), which works with or operates on the results of formal mentation. That is, where the formal mind establishes higher relationships (“if a, then b”), psychic cognition establishes networks of those relationships.

Subtle (8), said to be the seat of actual archetypes, of Platonic forms, of subtle sounds and audible illuminations (nada, shabd), of transcendent insight and absorption.

Causal (9), said to be the unmanifested source or transcendental ground of all the lesser structures, what Aurobindo called the “overmind.”

Brahman (10), the asymptotic limit.

The importance of Wilber’s model is that it sen es as an external scale by which to measure the validity of a particular religious engagement. Asserts Wilber: “But the important point is that the existence of each of the stage-levels of this model is open to injunctive inquiry and verification (or rejection). And it is this external verifiability—should it indeed prove sound—that confers upon this type of overview model its potentially believable status, and thus allows it, within broad limits, to act as a scale for the adjudication of any particular psychosocial engagement, including ‘religious involvement.’ ”3 It is Wilber’s emphasis on “adjudication” or, in non-legal language, appraisal which is at the heart of his argument. For although functionalism, primitivization theory, and phenomenological hermeneutics have their places as academic disciplines, when left alone these approaches flounder because they lack an objective standard whereby their specific contributions can be ultimately appraised.

3. Wilber. Eye to Eye, pp. 248-49.

 Advances Wilber: “Now by ‘adjudication’ I mean precisely this: We have no difficulty in saying, for instance, that a person at stage-5 moral development (a la Kohlberg) is at a higher stage than someone at stage-2. Nor do we have any difficulty in saying that a person at formal-operational (a la Piaget) is at a higher stage than someone at preoperational. . . Just so, with a general overview model of psychosocial development on the whole … we would be better able to judge—adjudicate—the relative degree of maturity or authenticity of any psychosocial production, moral, cognitive, egoic, or—in this case- -religious (and ‘new religious’).”4

For Wilber, “adjudication” follows two avenues: vertical and horizontal, or in his terminology, transformative and translative. The first is a hierarchical assessment, determining the specific level of consciousness or evolutionary adaptation. The latter is a measurement of the “degree of integration, organization, and stability of or within a given level of development.” With regard to the analysis of new religious movements, these correlatives are termed by Wilber authenticity and legitimacy. The more authentic a religion is, for example, the further up the hierarchical scale it will be. A more legitimate religion, on the other hand, is one that unifies its follower better to that particular stage of consciousness. In A Sociable God, Wilber exemplifies how this “transcendental sociology” works when applied to an actual case: “Maoism has (or rather had) a fairly high degree of legitimacy but a very mediocre degree of authenticity. It was a legitimate religion (or world view) in that it apparently integrated large blocks of peoples, provided social solidarity and a measure of meaning value … (a legitimacy rating of, say 8-9). It was not very authentic, however, because it offered adaptation only to or at the mythic-rational realms (5-6); say

4. Ibid., p. 249.
what you will, Maoism did not produce superconscient realization of, and adaptation to, only God. Thus: Maoism (8-9, 5-6) . . .”5

The last important element in Wilber’s analysis centers on the type and degree of authority evidenced by the group leader(s). Wilber does not expound on what constitutes “bad” authority, only that which he believes represents “good” leadership. Thus, his criterion takes into account those qualities and functions which are least likely to be “problematic,” such as the benevolent and phase-specific role of the genuine teacher or guru. In fact, it is the latter aspect—phase specificity— which Wilber argues is essential if any type of development, mental or spiritual, is going to occur.

This “phase-temporary” feature can run into difficulty if the promised advances or changes do not take place within a sufficient time. In that case, like in any regular educational affair (such as high school), the pupil’s grade is not a reflection of his efforts but of the teacher’s own incompetence. However, true spirituality is a continuing process and a disciple under the tutelage of a fully realized Adept will not terminate his relationship after a period of time. Rather, their interaction—the fire of their intimacy— continues, undergoing, in the words of Da Free John, bodily Transfiguration,

5. Wilber, A Sociable God, p. 62.
Transformation, and Translation into infinity.

With the preceding as a background, we can now turn our attention to a major problematic factor in several of the new religious movements: the concept of the “Perfect Master.”

Misconceptions of the Perfect Master

Before we can cite specific stances of where this notion “Perfect Master” can run into difficulty (at least in convincing a devotee that his guru is truly genuine), it is necessary to quote at length Wilber’s views on the subject, because he graphically displays how the term is so often misunderstood. Writes Wilber: “Perfection exists only in transcendental essence, not in manifest existence, and yet many devotees consider their master ‘perfect’ in all ways, the ultimate guru. This is almost always a problematic sign, because the devotee, in confusing essence with existence, is invited to project his or her own archaic, narcissistic, omnipotent fantasies onto the ‘perfect’ guru. All sorts of archaic and magical primary process cognitions are thus reactivated; the guru can do anything; how great the guru is; in fact, how great I must be to be among the chosen. It is an extremely narcissistic position.

“But, of course, the guru eventually displays his or her human side (thank God), but the devotee is devastated, disillusioned, crushed. The devotee then either leaves, because the guru can no longer support the devotee’s narcissistic glamor, or tries to rationalize the guru’s actions.”6

This first type of misconception (that the “Perfect Master” also has an indefectible body), for the most part, is supported by certain statements made by various gurus which have been taken out of context. For instance, “the saints take upon their bodies the disciples’ karma.” This is a common saying among the writings of the saints in the Sant Mat and Radhasoami tradition, as well as in the teachings of the yogis in the Shaktipat tradition. Regardless of whether or not such a thing actually occurs, the initiate begins to relegate perfection down from the transcendental region (the very place where the saints wish their disciples to reside) to the physical plane—albeit though only in one form: their guru!

Instead of realizing that a “Perfect Body” is a contradiction in terms (if the flesh could, in ’fact, be immutable it would no longer be “flesh”), the devotee rationalizes every physical ailment of the guru as “the master chewing up karmas.” This point is brought home in the story of one otherwise unpretentious initiate of a saint in North India, who figured that the reason for his guru yawning so much during satsang was because “saints swallow disciples’ evil actions.”7

I do not mean to indicate here that all devotees see the physical form of their guru as flawless or incapable of decay (indeed, the saint in the preceding story was extremely critical of such silly delusions on the part of his disciples), but only that there is a proclivity for misconceptions about the nature of a “Perfect Master.”

The problem is even more severe and more subtle with regard to “mental perfection.” It may be somewhat easy to accept that the master has a body which decays, but it is quite difficult for many devotees to realize that their guru may make logical, verbal, rational errors. Again, instead of accepting the inherent limitations of mentality, the disciple projects “Perfect Knowledge” onto his master, believing that his spiritual teacher will “know all things at all times.”8 But, such a thing never happens. Eventually, the guru slips up. As Faqir Chand, perhaps the most frank and revealing master about inner visions ever to live in India, comments:

“At least two hundred barren women—many among them had no menstruation—begot male children with my prashad (blessed food). But contrary to it, my own daughter, who has been married for the last fourteen years, is still issueless, whom I intentionally have given prashad many a time.

6. Wilber, Eye to Eye, p. 265.

7. This story was told to me personally in 1978 while I was on a research project with Professor Mark Juergensmeyer of the University of California, Berkeley, studying the Sant Mat and Radhasoami traditions in North India.

8. See “The Reluctant Guru: The Life and Teachings of Baba Faqir Chand” in The Laughing Man (vol. 3, no. 1) and “The Great Sage of Hoshiarpur” in The Movement Newspaper (November 1982) for more on the “unknowingness” of mystics.

 What does this prove? I am none to bless anybody. Had it been so, my daughter must have been blessed with a child. I can do nothing more than wishing good for all. My egoism is vanished . . ,”9

Though the preceding excerpt deals with a saint’s unknowingness with regard to performing miracles, the same situation applies to the “realm of infinite knowledge.” When masters talk about “Supreme Knowledge,” it should not be equated with logical, objective learning. The former is the Realization of one’s real and eternal nature, a transcendental experience of oneness. The latter is concerned with dualistic thinking, knowing about things. Therefore. when saints speak about the Ultimate Knowledge, they are not referring to the accumulation of book learning but to the Ground of Being, that which is the Condition of all subsequent conditions. Consequently, an enlightened guru may not know anything about academic subjects such as quantum mechanics, anthropology, or critical history. A Jesus, a Buddha, a Nanak, or a Ramakrishna, for instance. may have made factual errors with regard to names, places, dates, or factual instances, since such knowledge by nature is tentative (not absolute as the misguided and overzealous neophyte may believe) and subject to revision.10

It is this confused equation of book learning and Enlightenment which has led to a number of mistaken attributes concerning “Perfect Masters.” When this apparent paradox is not satisfactorily resolved by the spiritual seeker it can lead to such profound doubts that he/she even begins to question the genuineness of his/her guru and his/her teachings. The result? A crisis of legitimacy which inclines itself to a crisis of authenticity.

9. David Christopher Lane, “The Reluctant Guru: The Life and Teachings of Baba Faqir Chand” {The Laughing Man, vol. 3, no. 1).

10. See David Christopher Lane, “The Hierarchical ^Structure of Religious Visions” {The Journal of

Transpersonal Psychology, vol. 15, no. 1, 1983).

Critical Departures

Though Wilber is unambiguous in his ontological ranking (archaic to causal), it is important to note that Wilber’s whole model (including his highest stage) is subsumed and outranked by contrasting cosmological schemas. For example, in the cosmology of the Radhasoami tradition, one which is based upon the teachings of Kabir, Nanak, Tulsi Sahib, and Shiv Dayal Singh11 the highest achievements of Vedanta, Vajrayana, and Zen Buddhism (which Wilber places at the pinnacle of his model) are all located in the realm of the Universal Mind (Trikuti), three regions below the true stage of spiritual enlightenment, Sach Khand.

11. These poet-saints comprise a tradition which is commonly known as the “path of the saints” or Sant Mat. The Radhasoami movement is perhaps the most visible and authentic manifestation of this eclectic spiritual discipline.

This problematic juxtaposition is not simply one of typology, but, according to practitioners of Radhasoami, of experientially verifiable differences. Argues Lekh Raj Puri, a distinguished scholar and devotee in the tradition:

“We have seen that there are several mystic practices in the world, all of which aim at unveiling the hidden mystery of the universe; but that none is perfect except ‘Shabd Yoga.’ which takes us to the very final stage of ultimate Reality. Other practices leave us in the way.”12

12. Lekh Raj Puri, Mysticism: The Spiritual Path (Beas, India: Radhasoami Satsang, 1964), p. 164.

Furthers Shiv Dayal Singh, the founder of Radhasoami, in poetic verse:

“A practitioner of Surat Shabd Yoga will pass through Vishnu Lok, Shiv Lok, Brahma ka Lok, Shakti Lok, Krishna Lok, Ram Lok, Brahm Lok, and Par-Brahm Pad, Nirvan Pad of Jains, the region of Lord God of the Bible, the regions of the Christ and the regions of Malkoot, Jabroot and Lahoot of Mohammedans, all situated below Sunn . . ,”13

13. Shiv Dayal Singh, Sar Bachan Radhasoami Poetry (Agra, India: Soamibagh, 1970), p. 36.

Hence, in the purview of the Sants, Radhasoami would be a religion of the highest authenticity, with Zen and Vedanta being relegated a lower position on the hierarchy. Obviously, this sequential debate may have something to do, at least in part, with the belief that the particular structural adjudicator exposits. Is it merely coincidental that Wilber has been practicing Zen for over a decade and offers the same as an example of man’s ultimate state of consciousness? Even an otherwise sedate transpersonal anthropologist like the late Phillip S. Staniford cannot help questioning Wilber’s strong philosophical bias.14

14. See Philip S. Stamford’s personal letter to Ken Wilber, published in the 1982 (vol. 6, no. 1 &2) issue of Phoenix: The Journal of Transpersonal Anthropology.

It would seem that according to Wilber’s evaluation, the least fortunate of Christians would have been those in the living company of Jesus, and the least fortunate Buddhists would have been those taught directly by Gautama, lacking a lineage as they did. Gautama in particular, and Jesus to a lesser extent, broke with the existing traditions and taught a radically new way. Obviously, legitimacy is secondary to authenticity. While charismatic religions can be “problematic” in terms of legitimacy, this is not necessarily a defect. Nor must they be problematical all.

Personally, I agree with Wilber’s hierarchical schema and most of the conclusions he draws, but I find that there are many elements in his argument which need clarification in light of contrasting paradigms. This especially holds true with regard to the qualifications for a genuine spiritual teacher. Though it is correct that Perfection lies in essence not existence, this does not mean that we should settle for less “perfect” gurus. Rather, it is imperative that sincere seekers choose only those masters who exhibit the highest qualities of enlightenment. In my opinion, there is no better list of objective indices for a master than those outlined by Julian P. Johnson in The Path of the Masters (1939).

Wilber, however, is not unaware of how differing schemas of mysticism can clash with his own. Witness the effort of R. C. Zaehner to champion theistic mysticism as being higher than monastic mysticism. But, in face of such counter-arguments, Wilber invokes the principle of hierarchization, contending that saintly communion with the spirit is transcended by sagely identity with spirit (the latter encompassing the former, but not vice versa).

These rarefied debates, which to some may seem scholastically inappropriate, will not be resolved in the arena of academia, but in the elevation of a community of interested participants who may, after such transformation (subtle or otherwise), reflect, but not wholly bring down, their findings to rational discourse and speculation. In any case, this soteriological or “mandalic” science, as we can see, is still in its infancy. Thus, though there appears to be good reason—via the perennial philosophy—to believe that Wilber’s transpersonal schema is accurate, there are enough yet unanswered questions to prompt serious dialogue with contrasting paradigms— including the one offered by the saints in the Radhasoami tradition.