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The Kosmos According to Ken Wilber
How does one classify Ken Wilbur? Philosopher, psychologist, contemplative, author, avid consumer of popular culture, Wilber is one of our era's grand synthecists, integrating many levels of knowledge from the most concrete to the most etheral into a great unified view of the living universe. The reclusive thinker granted the Shambhala Sun a rare opportunity to discuss his ideas, and entered into the following dialogue via fax machine with Robin Kornman, Buddhist scholar and the Bradley assistant professor of world literature at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.
Robin Kornman: I read your ideas about the evolution of consciousness in a pair of your most recent books that seem to go together. Sex, Ecology, Spirituality is the big one, 800 pages. A Brief History of Everything seems to be a summary written for the common man and woman.
Ken Wilber: Yes, Brief History is much shorter and more accessible. At least I hope it is. The common man and woman? Well, anybody reading this magazine is already very uncommon, wouldn't you say? I wrote the book for the same not-so-common people, I guess, nut cases like you and me who are interested in waking up and other silly notions like that. This book is not going to knock Deepak Chopra off the charts. I suppose it's more for anybody who is looking for something like an overall world philosophy, an approach to consciousness and history that takes the best of the East and the West into account, and attempts to honor them both.
And what effect do you hope to have? What can knowing your philosophy do for the advancement of consciousness?
Not very much, frankly. Each of us still has to find a genuine contemplative practice-maybe yoga, maybe Zen, maybe Shambhala Training, maybe contemplative prayer, or any number or authentic transformative practices. That is what advances consciousness, not my linguistic chitchat and book junk.
But if you want to know how your particular practices fit with the other approachs to truth that are out there, then these books will help you get started. They offer one map of how things fit together, that's all. But none of this will substitute for practice.
As you note in Brief History, there are already plenty of progressive theories of history and theories of spiritual evolution. Sometimes your theory sounds like Hegel's dialectic, sometimes like Darwin, sometimes like various Asian views of world mind theory. What makes it different from these other systems?
Well, that's sort of the point. It sounds like all of those theories because it takes all of them into account and attempts to synthesize the best of each of them. That's also what makes it different, in that none of those theories takes the others into account. I'm trying to pull these approachs together, which is something they are not interested in.
You don't divide up your world into atoms, or elements, or psychological states, but rather into units you call "holons." These sound a lot like the "dharmas" of Buddhist abhidharma, or psychology. How influential was Buddhist abhidharma in your theory?
Well, I'm a longtime practicing Buddhist, and many of the key ideas in my approach are Buddhist or Buddhist inspired. First and foremost, Nagarjuna and Madhyamika philosophy: pure Emptiness and primordial purity is the "central philosophy" of my approach as well. Also Yogachara, Hwa Yen, a great deal of dzogchen and mahamudra, and yes, the fundamentals of abhidharma. The analysis of experience into dharmas is also quite similar to Whitehead's "actual occasions." My presentation of holons was influenced by all of those. Again, I'm trying to take the best from each of these traditions and bring them together in what I hope is a fruitful fashion.
Since we're talking about influences, your system could also be regarded, if I were feeling unsympathetic, as a simple reconstruction of 19th century Romanticism. The notion that we are all evolving toward a realization of pure spirit is a Romantic notion of history. There are lots of reasons that these bright, sentimental, and spiritual approaches were abandoned, but here are three:
1. Science made talk about spirit seem childish.
2. The World Wars took away people's faith in the bright absolutisms of Romanticism.
3. Romanticism spawned the fascists and, via the Hegelian dialectic, the Communists.
So how can you go back to this entirely exploded world view and make it the basis of a brave new millenium?
Actually, I attack the Romantics on numerous occasions-I mention all the points you did-and I do so with such polemical force that all the present day Romantics are totally furious with me.
To the reasons you mention that Romanticism is "exploded," I add several more, the most grievous of which is that as a system it has absolutely no yoga, no actual contemplative methodology, no way to stabilize any sort of genuine spiritual awareness. This actually left the Romantics open to severe regression, which is why I usually refer to them as "retro-Romantics." I point out several present day trends in retro-Romanticism, none of which are pretty, and I say so in blunt terms, and this has not endeared me to these folks.
Nor, in fact, do I believe we are evolving to some sort of spiritual Omega. In both books I maintain that the whole point is to directly recognize Emptiness: "Rest in Emptiness, embrace all Form," is how I put it in those books, which is pretty basic Buddhism. I actually ridicule the Omega theorists a little bit, which has gotten them pretty mad at me as well.
Your own world view is complicated enough. Meditators might just say, "Why do I need to have a global-historical view at all? Leave me alone to just meditate." What would you say to them?
You have some interesting criticisms of conventional modernism and postmodernism. You seem to accept their positions and yet at the same time to transcend them, to put them in their place. Can you explain that?
Yes, the idea is that all the various approaches and theories and practices have something important to tell us, but none of them probably has the whole truth in all its details. So each approach is true but partial, and the trick is then to figure out how all of these true but partial truths fit together. Not "Who's right and who's wrong?" but "How can they all be right?" How can they all fit together into one rainbow coalition? So that's why I both accept these positions but also attempt to transcend them, or "put them in their place," as you say. Whether or not I have succeeded remains to be seen.
You use the word "Kosmos" instead of cosmos. Why?
"Kosmos" is an old Pythagorean term, which means the entire universe in all its many dimensions-physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. "Cosmos" today usually means just the physical universe or physical dimension. So we might say the Kosmos includes the physiosphere, or cosmos; the biosphere, or life; the noosphere, or mind, all of which are radiant manifestations of pure Emptiness, and are not other to that Emptiness.
One of the catastrophes of modernity is that the Kosmos is no longer a fundamental reality to us; only the cosmos is. In other words, what is "real" is just the world of scientific materialism, the world of "flatland," the flat and faded view of the modern and postmodern world, where the cosmos alone is real. And one of the things these two books try to do is rehabilitate the Kosmos as a believable concept.