14. You have mentioned the subject of perennial philosophy in some of your books, often critically but sometimes more appreciatively. What is the reason for this?

That vexed subject entails the investigation of an extensive corpus of materials unknown to the popular circuit of interest in such matters. This corpus involves many complexities totally neglected by “new spirituality,” which is a vulgar contemporary distraction devised by profiteers. Those materials are known to the world of scholarship, though interpretations are often fragmented or provisional.

Because I became acquainted with a quantity of these materials in my unofficial research project, I attempted to make known something of the range involved in Minds and Sociocultures (1995), of sufficient length to deter casual readers. The history of religion and philosophy is not a subject that readily appeals to the retail bookshops dealing in flotsam like occultism, alternative therapy, and spiritualism. Many people have a taste for deceptive offerings, and so they are fed those by the commercial process. They are very prone to commercial books that are easily readable and which reassure them about what they have formerly been told, which may be completely erroneous.

CONTENTS KEY

14.1

The Traditionalists: Guenon, Schuon, and Coomaraswamy

14.2

The Aldous Huxley Backslide

14.3

Divergences and Alternatives

14.4

The Constructivist Counter

14.5

Ken Wilber and Adi Da Samraj

14.6

Rude Boy Andrew Cohen

14.7

The Findhorn Foundation Contrivance

14.8

Ken Wilber Integralism and the Critical Reaction

14.9

The Wild West Blog Showdown

14.10

Neoperennialism in Question

14.1  The Traditionalists: Guenon, Schuon, and Coomaraswamy

The history of religion and philosophy is a very big subject, and contractions are common. How much history is there in popular "perennial philosophy"? In this respect, my own views and conclusions do not converge with those of well known writers like Frithjof Schuon or Ken Wilber. Briefly, Schuon represents the “traditionalist” model of “religio perennis,” while Wilber represents the neoperennial “integral” approach. These two exponents are generally considered to be at opposite ends of the spectrum of exegesis. Their followers tend to insinuate that these interpreters have more or less expressed the last word on the subject. However, disagreements are possible. Wilber’s version has recently been contested by some of his former supporters in a rather notable controversy.

Ananda K. Coomaraswamy (1877-1947) is another well known exponent, nearer to Schuon than to Wilber, though some differences in output are clearly discernible. A critical version of Coomaraswamy may be found in one of my early works (The Resurrection of Philosophy, pp. 234-244). I could doubtless improve upon that now (it was written in 1984-5), but the approach suffices as evidence of some basic disagreements. I sympathise with the complaints of Coomaraswamy about the superiority complex of Western nations. However, as compensation he did enjoy a privileged position at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for three decades until his death. He had a Ceylonese father and an English mother. He was a very erudite art historian who wrote many learned articles which are still of significance (see Roger Lipsey, ed., Coomaraswamy, 3 vols, 1977). Yet some assessors have been disconcerted by the influence of the Neo-Scholastic movement associated with Aquinas. It is this sort of theological colouring which has provided a bone of contention.

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l to r: Rene Guenon, Frithjof Schuon, Shaikh Ahmad al-Alawi

There is no doubt that Frithjof Schuon and Rene Guenon (1886-1951) created interest in Sufism, which served to counterbalance the predominant Western popular focus upon occultism and Theosophy. Guenon was the originator of that trend. This French Roman Catholic converted to Islam and Sufism during 1911-12 in Paris. He was not insularist and believed that other religions were derivatives of a universal truth, though having suffered distortions. He started to write books in the 1920s, and expressed strong criticisms of Western society. In 1930 he settled in Cairo, his second wife being an Egyptian Muslim. He lived in Egypt for the rest of his life as a Muslim Sufi with the name of Abdul Wahid Yahya.

The 1920s output of Guenon influenced the German Frithjof Schuon (1907-1998), who corresponded with Guenon for many years until they met in Egypt during 1938. Schuon had earlier visited Algeria in 1932 and there encountered Shaikh Ahmad al-Alawi (1869-1934), a Sufi figurehead representing the Shadhili dervish tradition. Alawi showed an unusual respect for Christians, and had travelled to France in 1926. Alawi preferred to reconcile Islam and modernity, and even favoured the controversial practise of translating the Quran into French. One of Schuon’s followers later contributed an academic work on the Algerian. See Martin Lings, A Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century: Shaikh Ahmad al-Alawi (1961; new edn,1993).

Schuon later spent much time in America, where he demonstrated an empathy for the Plains Indians, being adopted by Sioux and Crow families. Probably his most well known book is The Transcendent Unity of Religions (1953). His influential follower Martin Lings (d.2005) subsequently contributed a biography of the prophet of Islam which gained acclaim in the Muslim world. See Lings, Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources (1983).

Along with Schuon and Guenon, Coomaraswamy is regarded as one of the three founders of perennialism or the “Traditionalist School.” Yet his writings are very different from those of Guenon, exhibiting more scholarship. Guenon neglected Buddhism, but Coomaraswamy integrated this factor. Guenon dwelt primarily upon Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, and was critical of Buddhism as a Hindu heresy, having been misled by some Hindus he had encountered. This drawback worried some of his acquaintances, including Schuon and Marco Pallis. It was not until 1946 that Guenon acknowledged the error, and Pallis emphasised that there were many pages in the books of Guenon that needed revision accordingly. See Martin Lings on Rene Guenon.

Guenon had disowned being a philosopher, and tended to support the caste dogmas of Hinduism, a gesture which has been viewed by some commentators as a serious flaw in his exegesis. Cf. Wikipedia Rene Guenon. Whereas Coomaraswamy moved at a tangent in his attempt to demonstrate the unity of Vedanta and Platonism. That was a difficult assignment, and is still harassed by some popular beliefs about Plato and the Greek Neoplatonists which have no secure basis.

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l to r: Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Aldous Huxley

14.2  The Aldous Huxley Backslide

By far the most well known work in the genre under discussion was Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy (1945). Huxley (1894-1963) was a controversial British novelist who became celebrated in America. He became a resident of California in the late 1930s. His book on perennialism was influenced by Coomaraswamy and others, and is well known for such definitions of the subject as: “the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality” (The Perennial Philosophy, p.vii). A decade later, Huxley settled for the psychedelic imitation of lofty themes he had promoted. He resorted to mescaline in 1953, and took his first dose of LSD in 1955. Huxley retained the psychedelic habit until his death.

Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception (1954) advocated mescaline usage. That book exerted a damaging influence, being favoured by the 1960s psychedelic wave; some commentators have described it as one of the major texts used by the American drug enthusiasts like Timothy Leary. The retrograde influence of Huxley was facilitated by his lectures in the early 1960s at the Esalen Institute of California, a venue that became a seedbed for the Human Potential Movement. (See Shepherd, Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One, 1995, pp. 148ff.). Ever since that period, the “perennial philosophy” has been a toy of the psychedelic mentality. Some LSD enthusiasts have distinguished their pursuit from the “contemplative” route, even deeming the latter to be inferior. The differences are very obvious. Another distraction was that numerous clients attended new age “workshops,” which created further sensations and delusions such as “self-realisation.”

14.3  Divergences and Alternatives

In a very different sector, critics reacted to the emerging Schuonite insistence that a spiritual path is inseparable from a revealed religion. Schuon was believed to represent Sufism, Vedanta, and Platonism. However, the Greek philosophical tradition is not associated with a revealed religion, despite some Neoplatonist tendencies of Proclus. The subject of perennialism has to be carefully probed. The emphasis upon a unity of religions is an attractive theme, and there is surely nothing wrong when this leads to an intercultural empathy with American Indians, Muslims, and Hindus. The vexations relate to a wider scheme of definitions, in contraction of which the Guenonian neglect of Buddhism is one example. Another point of disagreement is that Schuon strongly criticised Swami Vivekananda (d.1902) from the standpoint of a rather inflexible authoritarianism (Shepherd, The Resurrection of Philosophy, 1989, pp. 247ff.). Ironically, Vivekananda was strongly associated with the sanatana dharma, the “eternal religion” of Hinduism esteemed by Schuon.

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l to r: Hazrat Babajan, Sai Baba of Shirdi

In another camp, some Western partisans of Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta tend to suggest that religions like Islam are inferior to the “non-dual” variety. Dogmatism is a problem in the new age also, with “non-dualism” becoming one of the new commercial lures for the uncritical. Some of the most fascinating figures I have encountered in diverse materials were Muslims, if unorthodox in their orientation. Two of my early works commemorated Hazrat Babajan (d.1931) of Poona (Pune) and Hazrat Sai Baba of Shirdi (d.1918). The former (a Pathan faqir) is reputed to have been buried alive by religious zealots (though she escaped), while the latter has frequently been presented as a Hindu in devotional sources, a matter indicating the need for critique of hagiology. See A Sufi Matriarch: Hazrat Babajan (1986) and Gurus Rediscovered (1986).

Amplifications to the latter work occur in my Investigating the Sai Baba Movement (2005). See also Shirdi Sai Baba (2009), for an overview of the Muslim identity. See also Early Sufism in Iran and Central Asia (2010), for a complementary extension. See also Al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi (2010) and Egyptian Sufi Dhu'l Nun al-Misri (2010). See also Hallaj. The Zoroastrian heritage is often overlooked, but not at Sheriar Mundegar Irani.

Critics of “perennial philosophy” argue that it is quite obvious how various doctrines mentioned by Coomaraswamy and others are basically different. I have pointed this out myself more than once, to the point of being unpopular with those who conflate Buddhist doctrine with Hinduism. Myopic readers have sometimes assumed that, in referring to a perennial philosophy, I must be saying the same thing as Schuon or Wilber. Even my early chapter nine in The Resurrection of Philosophy is proof to the contrary, the title of that chapter specifying perennial folly. The treatment of religious traditions in the sequel Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals (2004) is antithetic to the fluent consumerist scenario in which readily familiar mottos prevail over complexities.

14.4  The Constructivist Counter

The “contextualist” or constructivist critique of simplistic perennial philosophy came from Steven T. Katz in Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis (1978). A formidable scholar and philosopher, Professor Katz converged with poststructuralist doctrines in depicting mystical experiences as being intimately related to cultural characteristics, language styles, and personalities. He was concerned to contest Huxley, and opposed the psychedelic movement. In his argument, there could be no pure experiences because of the cultural acclimatisations involved. Katz was in opposition to Joseph Campbell, Aldous Huxley, and Huston Smith. So is the present writer, though from a different perspective. Cf. Huston Smith, Cleansing the Doors of Perception (2000), which describes the author’s introduction to mescaline in 1961 by the manic Timothy Leary. Linguistic and cultural conditioning arguments are relevant, but not exhaustive, in relation to the elusive experiential context for which substitutes are so frequently improvised.

In more general directions, the poststructuralist trend has relegated science to an indigent quarter of the academic edifice via such postmodernists as Feyerabend, whose aesthetic inclinations to Dadaism are a testimony to caprice (see article 4 on this site). Only the textual page exists for some of these commentators, who say there is nothing outside the linguistic text. Like Derrida, their approach can be considered more nihilistic than empirical. Many “postmodernists” consider truth to be unattainable, a pessimism not shared by everyone.

More impressively, Professor Katz perceived that American Buddhism and American Hinduism did not resemble the originals, his point being that Westerners were influenced by their cultural conditioning into accepting a lax version of Asiatic religion (John Horgan, Rational Mysticism, 2003, p.46). Yet this does not mean, for instance, that Gautama Buddha never had any “transcendent” experiences, only that the psychedelic new age wave were frequently incapable of such an elementary Asiatic observance as celibacy. Katz did not actually deny mystical experiences, but argued that there is no way of proving these are true even if they are true. In which case they could be true, and so the subject is far from being closed by constructivism or poststructuralism. It is not necessary to believe that meditation is the key, as this subject has been a means of deception in suspect circles.

14.5  Ken Wilber and Adi Da Samraj

There is yet another basic problem involved in this sector. Some exponents of the perennial insist that they are able to chart advanced experiential states of mind. The difficulties arising here are related to evident factors of subjective preference. For instance, in Ken Wilber’s version of the perennial, a controversial American guru, early known as Da Free John, has been credited with very advanced experiential states. This elevation was strongly disputed elsewhere in view of the antinomian reputation of Da Free John, alias Adi Da (Shepherd, Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals, pp. 74-101). The related surfeit of “crazy wisdom” lore has percolated the American scene in popular alternative religion, and with confusions abounding as a consequence.

The real name of Da Free John was Franklin Jones (1939-2008). This entity generated an extreme form of pseudo-perennialism (some critics say that he was only equalled in that respect by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh). He exhibited a changing preference for exotic names, both for himself and his sect. Over the years he styled himself as Bubba Free John, Heart Master Da, Avatar Adi, Da Avadhoota, Da Love Ananda, Da Kalki, Da Avabhasa, and Adi Da Samraj. At the time of his death, his full title was Ruchira Avatar Adi Da Samraj. His community is currently known as Adidam, formerly favouring such designations as Free Daism and the Johannine Daist Communion.

There are strong overtones of Hindu language in these flamboyant representations, which illustrate Adi Da’s erratic tangent from his contact with the controversial guru Swami Muktananda (d.1982), who was the founder of Siddha Yoga. Adi Da became the disciple of this guru in 1968, and subsequently claimed that he had gained full enlightenment in 1970. A rather suspicious detail is that Adi Da was a member of Scientology during the interim.

Adi Da Samraj claimed the highest spiritual honours, in terms of being an Avatar, strongly implied as the peak achievement of perennial wisdom. He is one of the doubtful roles in Western neo-Advaita presuming to have inherited the legacy of Ramana Maharshi (see article 19 on this site). His books are celebrated by some American enthusiasts of “non-dualism,” but have also aroused criticism. Adi Da tabulated various religions and mystics in a way that evidently suited his preferences, his own creed of non-dualism being at the top of the list. He is inseparable from the subject of “crazy wisdom,” a disability shared with the bohemian Tantric Buddhist known as Chogyam Trungpa (1939-1987), who has the repute of being an alcoholic.

Various devotees of Adi Da became disaffected, with some of them filing lawsuits. There were reports that wild parties continued in his immediate environment during the 1970s and early 80s; he encouraged his devotees to watch pornographic movies. He was said to have nine “wives,” and to exercise a habit of drawing other women devotees into intimate sexual contact. The recipients of such amorous attention were frequently wives and girlfriends of male devotees; however, Avatar Adi Da resorted to the explanation that he was thereby assisting male devotees to overcome their sexual attachments. He himself was, of course, beyond all attachments as a supreme spiritual authority who must not be doubted.

An island in Fiji became a refuge for Adi Da after the lawsuits filed against him in the mid-1980s. One lawsuit (filed by Beverly O’Mahoney) accused him of fraud, intentional infliction of emotional distress, brainwashing, and sexual abuse. This list of charges is not exhaustive. The accuser here stated that she had been forced, via alcohol consumption, into sexual orgies during her seven years as a devotee of Adi Da in California and on the elite Fijian island. The media described her as a sex slave, and that does not seem an undue exaggeration in view of some details afforded. The relevant report was "Sex Slave Sues Guru: Pacific Isle Orgies Charged," San Francisco Chronicle, 04/04/1985. The Daist community resorted to elaborate justifications and evasions in a manner increasingly recognised as being the hallmark of cults. The legal claims were settled out of court.

The Mahoney lawsuit alleged that the non-profit tax-exempt status of the Johannine Daist Communion was a sham designed for the personal advantage of Adi Da. It is known that an Australian devotee contributed two million dollars to buy the Fijian island in 1983. By the time of the lawsuits in the mid-1980s, a cult counselling centre in Berkeley had assisted about fifty disillusioned ex-devotees of Adi Da. They were no longer in the mood for exotic claims and titles.

The San Francisco Chronicle in April 1985 reported the harrowing experience of a woman devotee who had bad memories of sexual abuse as a child. The remedy of the abnormally lustful Adi Da was to make her have oral sex with three other devotees, after which he himself indulged in sexual relations with the victim. She was hysterical as a consequence, and later related that this traumatic episode took years for her to come to terms with. This report has since appeared in chapter 20 of Geoffrey D. Falk, Stripping the Gurus,

A literate ex-devotee is the Indologist Georg Feuerstein, who has made significant criticisms of Adi Da in one section of a popular “crazy wisdom” book (Holy Madness, second edition, 2006). Dr. Feuerstein emphasises that partisan accounts of Adi Da have been glossed and mythologised, especially the autobiographical materials. For instance, Adi Da’s membership of Scientology for about a year in 1968-9 was a detail later relegated. That detail did not suit the hagiology of enlightenment inherited from Hindu Yoga.

In contrast, the assessments of Ken Wilber are problematic. This admirer of Adi Da penned influential encomiums. Wilber’s version of perennial philosophy was very popular in America, and the influence of Adi Da is clearly discernible. Wilber did post in 1996 a warning against the activities of this American guru, and observed that the hideout in Fiji represented an extremist position, one which had effectively curtailed Adi Da’s influence on the mainland. Yet disconcertingly, Wilber still expressed praise for the books of Adi Da, which had evidently influenced him deeply. See Wilber, The Case of Adi Da. Wilber was here still implying a form of spiritual development in the antinomian entity who had retreated to Fiji.

In 1998, Wilber confirmed his ambiguous view of Adi Da Samraj, stating that “he is one of the greatest spiritual Realisers of all time, in my opinion, and yet other aspects of his personality lag far behind those extraordinary heights” (quoted in Wikipedia Adi Da, accessed 30/03/2013). The journalist John Horgan described his interview with Wilber in 2000, and commented that “although he (Wilber) now sees Da Free John as a deeply flawed individual, Wilber still thinks the guru is a brilliant mystical philosopher” (Horgan, Rational Mysticism, 2003, p. 70). In contrast, I believe that the discrepancy proves the absence of any spiritual achievement. The word “realisation” is currently meaningless, at least in the sphere of “crazy wisdom” and “new spirituality.”

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l to r: Ken Wilber, Adi Da Samraj

Ken Wilber wrote two open letters to the Daist community in 1998, and one of these was briefly quoted in Wikipedia (see above). The other letter was posted on a Shambhala website three years after composition. This letter clearly amounts to a support for Adi Da Samraj. Wilber here says that he neither regrets nor retracts his past endorsements of Adi Da, and that it was only due to cultural and legal considerations that he was no longer able to give a public recommendation. Furthermore, he expresses satisfaction that his own writings had brought people to Adi Da, and he still in fact recommended that “students who are ready” should become disciples of this guru. These major concessions annul Wilber’s apparent reservations in his more well known statement of 1996 abovementioned. This matter has been the subject of a negative verdict from Geoffrey D. Falk in chapter 20 of his online book Stripping the Gurus (reference supplied above).

14.6  Rude Boy Andrew Cohen

The books of Ken Wilber frequently refer to enlightenment. Yet it is disconcerting to find that Adi Da Samraj (or Franklin Jones) is credited by Wilber with such a rare degree of enlightenment. The favoured word enlightenment here spells antinomian excesses. Ken Wilber’s underlying partisanship can arouse strong criticism. He has also elevated Andrew Cohen, another American guru closely related to the neo-Advaita trend. Wilber is well known for his dialogues with Cohen in the latter’s popular magazine What is Enlightenment? Cohen is there presented as the guru and Wilber as the pundit. The latter wrote a glowing foreword for Cohen’s book Living Enlightenment (2002). Wilber here defended and extolled Cohen as a “Rude Boy,” the meaning being that of an enlightened teacher who confronts deficient attitudes. Wilber has also stated that “every deeply enlightened teacher I have known has been a Rude Boy or Nasty Girl” (formerly cited in Wikipedia Ken Wilber, accessed 2008).

The crazy wisdom jargon is not to everyone’s taste. Wilber obviously believes that a number of enlightened teachers exist in America, which is surely reason to be wary of the attributes that may be encountered. Andrew Cohen’s mother Luna Tarlo turned against him (Cohen) when he demonstrated the abuse of power and the psychology of obsession. The Rude Boy told a female devotee that her enlightenment was complete, but when she expressed a concern to leave, he accused her of being “a hypocrite, a liar, and a prostitute” (Tarlo, The Mother of God, 1997, pp. 83, 87). Casual use of the word enlightenment amounts to a mere figure of speech, an exercise in pseudo-significance, and a lure such as the one associated with Tarlo’s account in which Cohen implies that anyone who loves him is guaranteed enlightenment.

There have been defectors from the Cohen magazine What is Enlightenment? Despite praise of this magazine (known as WIE) by new age celebrities like Ken Wilber and Rupert Sheldrake, ex-devotees of Cohen are reported to have dismissed it as “a hodge-podge of opinions that go nowhere.” The question posed was not being answered by the commercial magazine, according to dissenters and critics, and despite the prominence of Wilber in the glossy pages. See further chapter 21 of the online book Stripping the Gurus by Geoffrey D. Falk. The basis for the guru career of Andrew Cohen is that he spent two weeks with an obscure Advaita exponent in 1986, a man who promoted himself as an enlightened disciple of the long deceased Ramana Maharshi, who is currently a fantasy figure amongst Westerners. Two years later, Cohen founded EnlightenNext, a “nonprofit educational and spiritual network” which gained extensive promotion and funding.

An ex-devotee records how a wealthy subscriber gifted Cohen with two million dollars (over eighty per cent of her assets), but was subsequently reviled by the Rude Boy for being a narcissist who had not relinquished her ego (Andre Van der Braak, Enlightenment Blues: My Years with an American Guru, 2003, pp. 210-11). An ex-devotee website further attests Rude Boy drawbacks. Hal Blacker reports that three former editors of WIE had spoken out strongly against the Cohen abuses known amongst devotees. Cohen forced one of his students to “engage in daily visits to prostitutes in Amsterdam for weeks on end.” This ordeal was imposed as a retribution for past sexual indiscretions. Reference is also made to “the use of physical force and abuse against students.” There was “a kind of psychological torture chamber” at Foxhollow, the headquarters of EnlightenNext at Lenox, Massachusetts. See Hal Blacker, “A Farewell with Deep Gratitude” (April 2007) at the ex-devotee site What Enlightenment?

Jane O’Neil was the generous American who gifted Andrew Cohen with two million dollars to establish the Foxhollow h/q, assisting him to gain a semblance of legitimacy. Her subsequent dictated routine involved a thousand daily prostrations to his picture. After five years as a devotee, in 1998 this subscriber fled under cover of darkness, not wishing to undergo the “humiliation, interrogation and virtual house arrest” which had been the fate of another defector. She was then blacklisted as a narcissist. See O’Neil, “Andrew Cohen and the Corruption of Power” (December 2006) at the same ex-devotee website.

See also the more recent account in William Yenner, American Guru: A Story of Love, Betrayal and Healing - Former Students of Andrew Cohen Speak Out (2009). Yenner was a leading participant in Cohen's community for over a decade, and his book has been considered significant. The Yenner website has relayed that he "was left disillusioned and disappointed after a series of debilitating, abusive experiences." See also American Guru. For a review by Professor David C. Lane, see Andrew Cohen Exposed, which expresses the verdict that Cohen "is in deep need of long term therapy."

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l to r: Ken Wilber, Andrew Cohen

The exposition of Ken Wilber is known as integralism, a paradigm shared by other American thinkers who do not all agree with him. The wrong form of “integralism” can include problems and obstacles instead of negotiating or eschewing these. The constant need for critical acumen has never been more imperative in the face of so many problems masquerading as enlightenment. It would be unwise to believe that a deficient integralism can achieve accuracy in relation to past centuries when the present is so confused in popular analysis. Solid data relating to history and texts is notably absent from the new age of Rude Boys, but perhaps that is one of the lesser problems to contend with.

14.7  The Findhorn Foundation Contrivance

In learned circles, various matters are debated about the history of religion without always arriving at any clear resolution. In contrast, the popular field of “perennial philosophy” likes to simplify everything and present potted explanations of questionable value. Some very puzzling statements about this subject have appeared in readily saleable books. Even some scholars have taken liberties with materials, from the time of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy onwards. Some books actually eschew the history altogether, and instead offer speculations without any solid reference points. Thus the history of religion becomes whatever you want it to be, and is then novelistic. Opinions are more acceptable if there is sufficient context to justify such a recourse. The “perennial philosophy” is too often an unexamined concept, and is sometimes merely regarded as having a saleable value.

A very shallow claim to “perennial philosophy” occurred at the Findhorn Foundation in the 1990s. The claimant Alex Walker was an influential figure in this “new spirituality” organisation. The context was very glib. “The perennial philosophy as the mystical centre of religious thought is the theory which you will work with while you live in this community” (Alex Walker, ed., The Kingdom Within, 1994, p. 36, and cited in Shepherd, Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One, 1995, p. 923).

At that time I was living in Forres, almost next door to the Findhorn Foundation, and made a point of checking out this situation. The “theory” was so nebulous that it did not actually form part of the curriculum, which instead comprised new age “workshops” and alternative therapy, all for a high price. Official intervention had recommended suspension of Grof Transpersonal Training Inc. at this venue in 1993, due to the acute setbacks encountered by some clients, a matter which had alarmed Edinburgh University Pathology Dept. Alex Walker was one of those who credited the claim of Stanislav Grof that Holotropic Breathwork had a pedigree in antique shamanism. Grof sometimes made glib references to “perennial philosophy,” and these caused further confusions.

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Alex Walker

There was no scholarship whatever in evidence at the Findhorn Foundation. Walker was an in-house financial consultant who advocated privatisation of community assets on the lines of the contemporary capitalist model. His community suppressed and castigated dissidents while covering up an emerging debt which they vainly tried to offset by such means as privatisation (see article 10 and 13.5 on this site). The inmates only knew of the “perennial philosophy” in a very derivative manner, mainly via the books of Ken Wilber, which were available in the community bookshop. Although Wilber cannot be blamed for the peculiarities of this “new spirituality” community during the 1990s and after, he did patronise the confusions by participating (via phone link) in a celebrity event with Andrew Cohen during 2009. See also Wilber in Dispute.

On the Findhorn Foundation, see further Letter of Complaint to David Lorimer and New World Values Contested. See also Pseudomysticism and Cults.

14.8  Ken Wilber Integralism and the Critical Reaction

The books of Ken Wilber have received enthusiastic elevation from his supporters. It is more difficult for critics to rate the gestures in his early works towards alternative therapy and the Human Potential Movement. His Up from Eden (1981) was no doubt unusual as a version of human evolution, but the neo-Hegelian accents and other features have aroused disagreement (see my Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One, 1995, pp. 101-127).

The orientation of Ken Wilber in transpersonal psychology has also afforded objections. Nevertheless, his vocabulary progressed to integralism by the time of Integral Psychology (2000). That presentation was attended by the distinctive Wilberian terminology which has both attracted and repelled. Terms like the Great Nest of Being, the Kosmos, and the Integral Embrace are here in evidence; the dominating theory is that of Four Quadrants. Wilber tends to explain everything by such means and concepts, and he has been inclined to assert the completeness of his theories. His numerous books have given him a monolithic status in alternative metaphysics, and his followers have seldom queried his doctrines until recent years. Although one may credit Ken Wilber’s industry in creating a worldview which attempts to explain so many factors, the “Everything” theory does not convince his critics, of whom there are now different categories.

Wilber’s promotion of Nagarjuna is known to be very problematic. He frequently refers to this early Indian Buddhist philosopher, although using very limited source materials. “None of the relevant scholarship is mentioned in popular works like Ken Wilber’s neo-Hegelian treatise on evolution, which lends a ‘Dharmakaya’ sense of overwhelming priority to the Buddhist Madhyamaka philosopher Nagarjuna in relation to early Vedantic matters” (Shepherd, Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One, 1995, p. 664). Further, “Nagarjuna is often mentioned (by Wilber) with esteem, though with scant indication of the exegetical difficulties posed by that Buddhist exponent for specialist scholars” (Shepherd, Pointed Observations, 2005, pp. 51-2). I am not a specialist, so I will not attempt here to be exhaustive on the point at issue. A few details can be found at 20.5 on this site.

Another non-specialist has since caught up with some discrepancies. The Wilber critic Jeff Meyerhoff invokes poststructuralist thinking in evaluating Nagarjuna. He emphasises Wilber’s exegetical problem in relation to Nagarjuna’s association with nihilism and relativism, and also argues strongly against many other aspects of Wilber theory. See Meyerhoff, Bald Ambition: A Critique of Ken Wilber’s Theory of Everything (2010), also available as an online book at integralworld.net. A basic contention of the Meyerhoff critique is that Wilber generalises about subjects which are in basic debate amongst academic experts, subjects which Wilber incorporates into an ambitious metaphysical theory of Everything.

In relation to religion, neither Wilber nor Meyerhoff mention the provocative detail that Nagarjuna “according to some scholars was not a Mahayanist at all” (Shepherd, Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals, p. 98). Wilber tends very much to stress the supercession of Hinayana Buddhism by Mahayana, using an evolutionary argument in Up from Eden that was contested by the present writer over a decade ago. The counter-argument was ignored by American integralism, for whom Brits are virtually a martian race who expired in the Georgian era.

At the close of the 1990s, Ken Wilber founded the Integral Institute in Colorado. There have since been accusations of a cult-like approach from diverse critics, and extending to associations with the founding member Andrew Cohen. See Geoffrey D. Falk, “Norman Einstein”: The Dis-Integration of Ken Wilber (2008), an online book. The Falk critique is lengthy, accusing Wilber of inaccuracy and narcissism, and opposing the Integral Institute. See also the more compact coverage in Michel Bauwens, The Cult of Ken Wilber. This contribution comes from a former fan of Wilber who subsequently complained of several tendencies perceived as serious flaws.

Wilber’s failure to negate his praise of of Adi Da Samraj was a major hurdle for some of his admirers in the 1990s. Bauwens also describes the style of Wilber’s lengthy Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1995) as being unduly aggressive in places, and there is again the pervasive issue of matters taken for granted that are actually more complex. Recent occurrences in the Integral Institute are indicated as fostering an exclusivist and depreciatory attitude on Wilber’s part to those outside his close circle. Furthermore, these dissatisfactions are aggravated by the claims of Wilber to “nondual realization” in his book One Taste (1999), and also by his alliance with the meme theory of Don Beck and Chris Cowan. Wilber  has tended very much to relegate "green meme" ecological interests and other matters in preference for the elevation of presumably transpersonal roles allocated to higher memes. See Integral Psychology (2000), chapter 4. See also article 13.18 on this website.

Frank Visser

A significant turnabout is associated with Frank Visser, who authored the definitive guide to the life and work of the debated integralist (Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, 2003). Visser is not American but Dutch, and is located in Amsterdam. His subsequent commentaries attest a critical angle on Wilber, converging with the disillusionment of American partisans. Visser is webmaster of the prominent Wilber discussion site at integralworld.net. He proved resistant to the new Wilber opus Integral Spirituality (2006). Visser observes that “it takes Wilber 178 pages to get to the topic of religion proper (in a book the main text of which is little over 200 pages).” Refer to Visser, “Simply Too Much,” October 16th 2006, at Wilber Watch. The same blog assesses Wilber’s subsequent book The Integral Vision (2007), which Visser describes as “a rehash of material from Integral Spirituality” plus “a lot of flashy techno-erotic illustrations, and a couple of ‘1-minute exercises’ included in Integral Life Practice.” See “Wilber Assessment vs. Advertising,” September 19th 2007.

14.9  The Wild West Blog Showdown

In June 2006, a key event in the Ken Wilber drama unfolded. The pundit of integral spirituality delivered a broadside on the web against his critics. To be more specific, his former supporter Frank Visser was here the major target. Wilber’s memorable response to criticism was couched in a “Wild West” idiom explicitly associated with Wyatt Earp. This blog assault included vulgar phrases of questionable relevance. Yet the main scenario here was Marshal Wilber’s intent to corner the outlaws and then ride on, “transcending and including more outlaws than any lawman dude type person in history.” Moreover, the transcender was “riding off into the sunset of integral peace and harmony.” Wilber’s refrain was optimistic in view of critical reactions. Conclusions were expressed that he is averse to legitimate criticism, and was here demonstrating characteristics reminiscent of cult leaders. See Wilber, What We Are, That We See Part 1: Response to Some Recent Criticism in a Wild West Fashion (June 8th, 2006). Cf. Frank Visser, The Wild West Wilber Report, which contains a bibliography of diverse critical responses to the provocative Wilber postings.

14.10  Neoperennialism in Question

Wilber failed to give any detailed historical data in his books, relying upon a more abstract conceptualism, and despite the nominal theme of his work entitled A Brief History of Everything (1996). Some are very wary of his “neoperennialism,” which has been viewed as a premature substitute for the inadequately investigated antecedents. Furthermore, despite his frequent attempts at universality in promoting Zen, Vajrayana Buddhism, and a transpersonalist version of Advaita Vedanta, Wilber has sometimes reflected the biases of the American Human Potential Movement that was nurtured at Esalen in the 1960s. For instance, five major traditions in the history of religion were stigmatised by Ken Wilber in his longest work with a marked degree of unsympathetic accusation. The crime alleged is ascetic repression. The traditions named are Gnosticism, Manichaeism, Theravada Buddhism, a type of Advaita Vedanta, and all forms of Christianity (Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, p. 520). Even Aristotle is added to the list of disdained parties.

This emphasis of Wilber does serve to illustrate the anomalies in contemporary preferences for “perennial philosophy.” The latter subject has been charted elsewhere as having a predominantly contemplative complexion, frequently found in monastic and ascetic traditions. Such dispositions are unpopular in “new spirituality,” which seeks to supplant them in various ways. This American appetite passes muster as “integralism,” even when preferring the activities of suspect Rude Boys. A critical response to Wilber came from the pen of a British writer, and can here be quoted in small part:

“Many of the exemplars involved here were ascetics and disciplined contemplatives committed strongly to an other-worldly ideal not palatable to many modern Americans of the post-hippy era. The moderns under discussion are in no position to pass a judgment upon non-American spirituality in view of their own contrary tastes. Those moderns are a product of American capitalism and the hippy generation of hedonistic values mushrooming in shallow themes of ‘non-repression’.” (Shepherd, Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals, 2004, p. 98)

For a more sustained critique of Wilber’s neoperennialism, see Shepherd, Pointed Observations (2005) pp. 45-73, which has been described in Britain as a strong response to such matters as the Adi Da issue and the Beck-Wilber meme theory, and being written well in advance of the “Wild West” showdown. Cf. the multi-volume Collected Works of Ken Wilber.

Ken Wilber might have done better to emphasise that the scourge of AIDS originated in America, from there spreading to the rest of the globe in a phenomenon still not duly acknowledged by some cover-up tactics in certain American universities. It would arguably have been better for the planetary population as a whole if more “new age” persons in America had been “repressed” ascetics and contemplatives instead of excessively unrepressed homosexuals, whose activities in California became notorious even in America.

The degraded “perennial philosophy” is currently in the category of affluent leisure interests. For there to be any relevant perspective on that aborted subject, it would have to be divested of contemporary colourings and distortions. Judging by current standards, that might take a long time, and by then the crucial oil reserves maintaining the American consumerist way of life could be seriously depleted or extremely expensive. There will be other factors arising from the global warming that is often ignored and disputed.

Ken Wilber does favour ecological emphases. However, there is substantial scope for disagreement with the message found in his Integral Spirituality (2006), celebrated by his followers, but contested by Visser and others. The current "post-metaphysical" exegesis of Wilber, departing from the caricatured perennial philosophy, is one of the issues covered in my web article Ken Wilber and Integralism (2009). See also Ken Wilber and Integral Theory (2010).

 

Copyright © 2013 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved. Page uploaded September 2008, last modified March 2013.