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The Atman Fiasco

The Atman Fiasco
Childhood's End
Evolution: a misnomer
Excursus: Mahayana Buddhism

Mahayana Proper


The Atman Fiasco

The Atman Project( 1 ) is the central Wilber's book, the fount ( with the possible exception of "The Spectrum of Consciousness" ) of all his later speculations which try to dovetail all and everything, from biological evolution ( only sketched ) to socio-cultural models and spiritual Weltanschauungen into a single, all- encompassing pattern ( his completely developed catalog of all things imaginable ( for Wilber ) can be found in his accessible collection of conversations ( 2 )).

By the way, this essay focuses on "mystic", or, in modern parlance, "transpersonal" aspects of Wilber's work, neglecting the much discussed synthesizing effort- an attempt to assimilate and integrate multifarious realms of knowledge, mainly in the fields of psychology, philosophy, anthropology, sociology plus somehow diluted behavioral and cognitive sciences ( the exact sciences, except for a few passing references on a history of sciences and amateurish juggling with quantum physics, are wisely left alone ). Since any modern-day Hegel is at best an eclectic read bubbling with old ideas in new guise, and at worst a travesty of that extinct species, the great universalist originals and polyhistors of the past ( Aristotle, Ibn-Sina/Avicenna, Descartes, Leibniz, even Rudolph Steiner ), I shall completely ignore this fiercely debated ( and, effectively, greater part of Wilber's acribia ) topic as a cognitively irrelevant subject and virtually a blind alley not deserving a meticulous dissection.

Since my opinion is that such an endeavor ( in effect, the whole book is an effort to resolve the ultimate question:" What is the meaning and purpose of ( human ) life ?" ) is doomed from the outset ( "The Tao that can be told of is not the eternal Tao" ), I'll just adumbrate a few points of this book, which I deem most questionable, with excursus into some "perennial" doctrines Wilber so nonchalantly warps to fit his fantasy-turned-dogma.

In essence, Wilber's "The Atman Project" is a book whose central message is that the meaning and purpose of life is "evolution" of consciousness ( rather fuzzily defined; ostensibly under the influence of Neotheosophical writers/sages like Sri Aurobindo, but, he's more conversant with the terminology of Mahayana Buddhism - I shall address this issue later on), culminating in non-dual recognition of oneness of one's being with the eternal Ground of all ( Boehme's Ungrund/Abyss, Advaita's Brahman, Mahayana's Dharmakaya, Eckhart's Godhead/Gottheit etc. ) In short, you got a clear message: the pinnacle of humanity are Zen patriarchs, Jiddu Krishnamurti or Ramana Maharshi. Michelangelo, Bach or Einstein being still schoolboys, Shakespearean "to thine own self be true" is, according to this position, the greenhorn's law.

A devil's advocate might argue something like this: What use would be of Shakespeare had he devoted himself to contemplative instead of creative life ? Or of Caesar, who by his military and political exploits had enabled Virgil's, Horatio's and Epictetus's works to flourish and survive. It implies that Mozart was of necessity a composer, or Leonardo a painter/scientist/engineer.

Wilber's answer would be ( arguably ) that these and similar personages are necessary rungs in the ladder of evolution, but still ( in the aforementioned cases ) falling short of the ultimate evolutionary goal, the union with the Source and Ground of everything ( I wouldn't bother to stress the usual Zen thesis that one already is that Ground, and will stick to our rather conventional language with duality ingrained in syntactic structures. After all, this is more in the vein of Wilber's apparently evolutionary scheme. ) Weakness of this argument lies in the very contradiction enshrined in Wilber's central dogma: he equates supreme enlightenment ( described mainly in Ch'an/Zen and Advaita Vedanta terms ) with supreme creativity.

N.B. As an aside remark: Wilber uses, with remarkable nonchalance, Hindu Vedanta and Mahayana Buddhism, as it were, "tied up" in a single unit and switches between two systems without slightest hesitation; therefore, savikalpa samadhi pertains to Dharmakaya etc. Whether this is a sign of latitudinarian attitude or of a New Age intellectual irresponsibility- I leave it to the readers to decide.

The problem is that the supreme enlightened ( so far we can ascertain ) are not very creative, let alone dwelling on the summit of such activity. On the contrary, one might cynically observe that trademarks of vita unitiva/sahaja samadhi/baqa, judging from lives of Ramana Maharshi, legendary Bodhidharma or Suso are lethargy, apathy or asocial quietism. The fact that a few realized mystics were also powerful and charismatic writers ( Rumi, Angelus Silesius, Sri Aurobindo,..) doesn't alter the sobering truth: creativity, as we are used to understand the meaning of this word, is a specific activity of struggling human beings doomed to subject-object relational isolation. In this sense, neither God, nor the God-realized humans present epitomes of creativity.

Evidently, such a worldview unabashedly puts the author's pro-mystical bias as the key to the "riddle of existence". More, even "spiritually" or religiously minded people could hardly accept that the ground of the theophanies and the source of prophetic revelations, i.e. "God", is, at best, just an imaginal object of quietist meditative practice of rather passive contemplatives. The Biblical or Koranic God is reduced to an anemic yantra or mumbo-jumboid mantra. Judging from this, theistic perspective ( not necessarily "fundamentalist" ), monism has swallowed up monotheism in a way not even the wildest of theocentric mystics, from Eckhart or Boehme or Molinos to Hallaj or Kabir could assent to.

Childhood's End

Wilber's psychology is a curious blend. Essentially, he assimilated Freudian "insights" ( now heavily questioned )and put them within partially Jungian framework ( his chief reference is Neumann's "The Origins and History of Consciousness", whose singular terminology he amply (mis)uses ( pleromatic self, uroboric self,..)). So, from chapter 2. to 7. of his book; also, chapters 14. and 15., plus greater part of the chapter 16.( 1 ), he virtually does nothing else but retells the Freudian story on child's cognitive, motivational and affective modes of behavior and perception ( especially when patterns of the story coincide with that of Piaget, who possesses more "academic respectability". ). Be as it may, one cannot get rid of impression that:

1. this yarn on mutable levels of growing selfhood, while having roots in observable data any empirical psychiatrist would subscribe to, is, alas, heavily distorted ( or "illuminated", depending on one's preferences/prejudices ) by Freudian anal/castration/genital..mythology only psychoanalysts ( and Jungians, who have assimilated this part of infantile psyche mythos ) take "as is". Other psychological schools consider this to be only a speculation, something prior to formation of hypothesis, not to speak on a scientific theory. In short, Wilber's "pre" phasis is the Freudian mythos so refurbished as to fit the author's own speculation, being an overture to the grand metaphysical symphony in East-Asia Minor.\

2. these 6 chapters literally sag under the verbiage mainly derived from Jungian systematizer Neumann, bearing marks of the founding father's Gnostic enchantement ( pleroma, uroboros,..), yet bizarrely misread in Jungspeak. Circa 70 pages of the 200+ pages book could have been condensed to 7-10 pages maximum, instead of torturing a patient reader with high-falutin commonplaces ( preverbal, membership cognition, magical cognitions,..) "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing" ( allright, something; but this "something" is utterly banal and exemplifies the proverbial "old wine in new bottles". ) For instance:
the Axial and Pranic stage - Early Body Ego
the Image Body Self - Late Body Ego
the Verbal-Membership stage
the Mental Egoic stage
the Biosocial stage
the Centauric stage..
elephantine verbiage seems not to express meaning but to conceal it; and what is worse, to conceal the absence of meaning. The excessive piling up of Godzilla and Megaron verbal offspring ( sankrt-hellenic- latin hybrids ) serves the purpose of presenting rather dull and banal platitudes as a staccato of dazzling revelationary sparkling insights.

N.B. In all fairness, it must be added that Wilber, especially re his insistence on "pre-trans fallacy" ( a mental scholastic fodder for much of transpersonal psychologists's internal squabbles- in my opinion, an irrelevant issue; a, so to speak, "transpersonal red herring" serving the single purpose of averting an unattentive reader's mind from crucial misunderstandings and contradictions ingrained in the matrix of this speculative discipline and its various offshoots ) departed from orthodox Jungian worldview as espoused in Neumann's magnum opus. But, since he retains ( and distorts ) their linguistic framework, and up to his "subtle" levels ( another example of Wilberspeak ) is, more or less, in concordance with Jungians ( later, his true allegiance, a heavily Wilberspoken Tibetan Buddhism, will have become evident ), it is no mistake to call him a psychoanalytical progeny, a "spiritual" son of both Freud and Jung- at least until this stage. As a final dictum on this subject: considering that Freud's edifice is rapidly falling apart, Wilber's "pre" phase would probably follow the same way.

Evolution: a misnomer

The keyword evolution whizzes through "The Atman Project" incessantly, like class struggle in the Communist Manifesto. Alas, unlike Marx and Engels's failed prophecy ( who really meant what they had written ), this word, in Wilberspeak, has nothing in common with ordinary meaning one could find even in unorthodox, "spiritual" evolutionists. First, we shall analyze the Atman project in its psychospiritual dimension; the other aspect where "soul's" ascent is rendered using the terminology of Mahayana Buddhism will be left to the next chapter.

Let's hear the author:

"Thus evolution- wherever it appears- manifests itself as a series of transcendences, of ascents, of emergences- and emergences of higher-order wholes. For to remember is really to re-member, or join again in unity, and that is just why evolution consists of a series of ever-higher order wholes until there is only Wholeness. Evolution is holistic because it is nature's rememberance of God......... ....And so, the soul that finally remembers all this, and sees it however vaguely, can only pause to wonder: How could I have forgottten ? How could I have renounced that State which is the only Real ?......... At that final rememberance, the impact of only God in absolute Mystery and radical Unknowing dismantles once and for all the Atman project.....But Atman is Unseen. Atman is Unspoken. Prior to all that arises, It is not other than all that arises, so it can be seen after all"
( 1, chapter 18 ).

What are we to deduce from this passage ( and from the legion of similar ones ) ? Only that Mahayana Buddhist position ( which I have sketched in the following part ) in its radical assertion that Kosmos ( let's use Wilberspeak for fun ) is nothing but a succession of fleeting appearances, illusory dance of mirages in the Mind/Emptiness ( Alaya-Vijnana/Shunyata ), permeates Wilber's Atman project to the core. This is the stance of Zen Buddhism, of Mahamudra and Bardo Thodhol. For these schools, there is/was no creation ( as different from Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, Kashmir Shaivism, Kabbalah, Sufism, Theosophy). And, since there is no creation, there is no evolution. Wilber misappropriates word "evolution" for purely ( trans)personal usage: it signifies nothing else but "untieing the knots of ignorance" ( Ramana Maharshi in Advaita Vedanta ) or "polishing the mirror of Heart/Mind" ( Zen Buddhism ). Nothing evolves- only ignorance ( avidya ) dissolves.

This is not even Hegel's evolving Spirit from "Phenomenology of Spirit", "enriched" ( better, fused into perfect confusion ) by Mahayana Buddhist doctrine. You can't get both evolution and illusory nature of reality ( unless, of course, you completely misuse commonly accepted meanings of words ). Irrepressible contraries wreck Wilber's Atman Project from the outset: evolution ( however "spiritual" it may be, and in whichever guise-Hegelian, Theosophical, Teilhardian, Aurobindoan ) and the radical unitary monist idealism of Ch'an/Zen or Tibetan Mahamudra schools are mutually exclusive.

One can have the evolving Spirit ( Hegel; also, Meher Baba in his magnum opus "God speaks" ); or, more frequently, perpetually mutable inner self, going down and up the Jacob's ladder of genuine levels of selfhood as exemplified in the indestructible "I" ( Assagioli's Psychosynthesis ( 23, 24 ) ), spiritual seed ( Valentinian Gnosticism ), jiva ( Hindu Tantra ( 26, 27 )), "the naked isolated self" or "I center" ( Gerda Walther ( 18) ), Psychic Being ( Sri Aurobindo ( 15, 16 ) ), with the (pen)ultimate apotheosis and glorification with the Self as Image of God. In more traditional doctrines ( Kashmir Shaivism, Vishishtadvaita Vedanta, Suddha Vedanta ) or in genuine transpersonal psychologies ( Psychosynthesis, Walther's phenomenology ), the accent is on the indestructibility of inner self, without the concept of evolving "essential soul". Other, more nitpickingly speculative schools and authors ( Neotheosophy, Alice Bailey, Sri Aurobindo, Daskalos ) insist on a portion of Divine Self put into creation as the evolving "entity", perpetually mutable and growing inner self, the true protagonist and "privileged" agent of cosmic evolution.

Be as it may, both hypotheses are incompatible with unitary monism of mayavada provenience, the chief source for Wilber's blueprint of all and everything.

Furthermore, just to add to the confusion: Tibetan Tantrism, in all likelihood, possesses the ultimate heresy to the Buddhist Weltanschauung: the permanant centre of consciousness. Unlike Zen Buddhism, authoritative Vajrayana scriptures and philosophers insist on the reality of principle of consciousness, whether in the form of zig-zagging entity suffering or enjoying various levels of Reality/Consciousness ( termed vijnana, vijnana-skandha or chaitanya ( 10 )) or, during the process of meticulous dissection, it emerges as the real entity ( however the author is at pains to deny it ( 11 )).

In the following passage, the "I" is called manas:

"..Mediating between the universal and the individual-intellectual consciousness is the spiritual consciousness ( manas ), which takes part in both sides. It represents the stabilizing element of the mind, the central point of balance, upholding the coherence of its contents by being the centre of reference. But for the same reason it is also the cause for the conception of egohood in the unenlightened individual, who mistakes this relative point of reference for the real and permanent centre of his personality. ....This also explains the double character of manas which, though being without characteristics of its own, becomes a source of error if it is directed from the universal towards the individual or self-consciousness, while in the experience of the opposite direction, from the individual towards the universal, it becomes a source of highest knowledge ( arya-jnana ).......Manas is the principle through which the universal consciousness ( alaya-vijnana ) experiences itself and through which it descendes into the multiplicity of things, into the differentiation of senses and sense-objects, out of which arises the experience of the material world " ( 11, part 2, chapter 7 ).

We have quoted this passage from Govinda just to show classic ambivalence one frequently encounters in Tibetan Buddhist texts based primarily on Yogachara/Vijnanavada school; Zen, with its center of gravity in Nagarjuna's Madhyamika doctrine, doesn't present such contradictions- due to its lack of subtlety in psycho-spiritual analysis, it simply ignores them. Because, give or take, the active, "entity"-like nature of manas is evident from the aforementioned quote; the very possibility of the "naked" manas's activity ( not enmeshed with skandhas which give birth to empirical consciousness of mano-vijnana ), without being automatically "sucked up" or recognizing its unitary existence as all-encompassing reservoir of consciousness ( Alaya-Vijnana )- all this affirms the reality of transegoic selfhood, under whichever name ( knower, chaitanya, vijnana, manas, principle of consciousness, spiritual consciousness ), which is the arch-heresy of normative Buddhism.

We shall end by summarizing Wilber's imaginings and misattributions:

1. Wilber's descriptions of mano-vijnana and manas ( 1, chapter 8 ) are a monument to his misreading of the Tibetan Tantra. For a more reliable description, see the above passage and its source ( 11 ).

2. Wilber's Atman project is delineated in ( in his own words, "the most important chapter in the book"- the chapter 10 ) following words:

"...As evolution proceeds, however, each level in turn is differentiated from the self, or "peeled off" so to speak. The self, that is, eventually disidentifies with its present structure so as to identify with the next higher-order emergent structure. More precisely ( and this is a very important technical point ), we say that the self detaches itself from its exclusive identification with that lower structure. It doesn't throw that structure away, it simply no longer exclusively identifies with it. The point is that because the self is differentiated from the lower structure, it transcends that structure ( without obliterating it in any way ), and can thus operate on that lower structure using the tools of the newly emergent structure".

This passage, central to Wilber's worldview, is open to numerous criticisms. I'll just mention a few I deem to be the most important:

a) Wilber incessantly uses the term "self". As we have pointed out, since according to Ch'an/Zen extreme unitary monism ( Wilber's primary source ) there is no such an entity, the entire Atman project crumbles. For, if one denies genuineness of the selfhood's levels ( unlike Sri Aurobindo, Sri Yukteshwar, Vallabacharya, Ramanuja, Valentinus, Plotinus, Doctor Ecstaticus John Ruysbroeck, Blessed Johann Tauler, Isaac Luria, Master Besht, Theosophy, Assagioli, Daskalos, Seth's channelings )- there is no entity who identifies, disidentifies, transcends and operates. These are, for marginal non-dual doctrines, only vortices in Illusion, creating the illusion of selfhood or "ego", at whichever level ( and any level is again a sheath of Maya, hence an illusion again ). For them, the only agent is supracosmic Void/Shunya ( Mahayana Buddhism ) or Atman/Brahman ( Advaita Vedanta ). Only illusory layers are being peeled off, but no singular "being" ( soul, "I" ) is a protagonist of the dynamics of the gradual dissolution of Maya's play of consciousness-bondage. More- there is no "dynamics" at all, nor the need for some "project". The Wilber's project is a contradictio in subjecto: since all steps he's enumerated ( and they also can be questioned ) are just leaps from one false egoic vortex to another, there is neither gain nor loss, neither evolution nor involution, because the fundamental protagonist ( "I", soul, self, spark ) is absent from the picture: all strata of self-consciousness save the ultimate one ( in Wilberspeak ) are essentially spurious and illusory.

In short: Wilber continually uses the semantics of the differentiated monism ( or Theosophy ), but, since it is juxtaposed on the extreme unitary monism grand blueprint, it momentarily loses its coherence and meaning.

b) Putting aside the contradictions lying at the very heart of the Atman project, two common sense remarks seem to be the appropriate tombstone for this part of the story:

1. Definitions of the self's activities ( disidentification, transcendence and operation ) are evidently too simplistic: when a ( wo )man "transcends" her/his more or less complete identification with body or various aspects of the psyche, (s)he is, nevertheless, at the mercy of body/psyche's pulls and drives. It goes without saying that body grows old, memory fails, heart may be subject to coronary thrombosis or brain to cerebral insult- all this with disidentified and operating self. So much for Atman project's grand claims.

2. My final word on this subject was already uttered, but I'll repeat it: this is a pure and unadulterated mysticism, the Middle Ages view of life refurbished for modern faint-hearted "seekers after truth". Since I'm not a believer in eternal recurrence, I'd say this is a relapse into an obsolete and justifiably discarded state of mind.

Excursus: Mahayana Buddhism

Since Wilber uses exhaustively a variant of Mahayana Buddhist metaphysics as the central conceptual framework for his description of mind and cosmos ( later, Kosmos ), I felt compelled to clear the ground re this matter.

First, we shall succinctly present author's set of correspondences that define his entire "evolutionary" scheme as imagined in "The Atman Project". Chapters 8 and 9 are the most pertinent to our presentation.

--------------     --------------   ----------------------------

                                      EGOIC CONSCIOUSNESS
                                      WITH CONCOMITANT MENTAL,
                                      EMOTIONAL OR VOLITIONAL


THE LOW SUBTLE                          CLAIRVOYANCE;ASTRAL-                                                                                                                                                                                            PSYCHIC ; PARANORMAL

-   -   -   -   -   -   -  -  -  -   -  -   -   -   -   -  -  -

                                      TRANSTEMPORAL ARCHETYPAL
                                      FORMS; OVERSELF, OVERMIND


THE LOW CAUSAL                         FUSION WITH GOD, 
                                       BLISS WITH DUALITY
                                       STILL PRESENT;
                                       SAVIKALPA SAMADHI
-  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  - -

                                       NIRVIKALPA SAMADHI,
                                       BOUNDLESS CONSCIOUSNESS

                                        SAMADHI; THE ULTIMATE
                                        UNICITY OF BEING

In short, this is Wilber's "soul's" Odyssey. Pity it contains scattered elements of truth, misattributions, partisan siding with marginal and contradictory doctrines etc., etc.

Without delving into phenomenological analysis, I will address a few issues that glaringly reveal Wilber's irresponsible juggling with words ( the details will be elaborated in no time ):

1. Wilber's splitting of the two Buddha's bodies in the Trikaya doctrine is completely arbitrary. Although the Buddhist Canon presents a wild welter of imaginings and contradictions, this is completely Wilber's invention.

2. His welding of altered and meditative states of consciousness with the Trikaya terminology is a pure nonsense. For instance, the Sambhogakaya is the "Body" of fully enlightened Buddhas and Boddhisattvas, not some quasi-theosophical "plane" of astral and visionary travels.

3. He has "chain-stitched" transtemporal and transcosmic ontological concepts with various strata of expanding/contracting empirical samsaric consciousness. More, in "higher" levels he has unfoundedly attributed theistic ( sometimes even monotheistic ) flavor to the Trikaya dogma, which explicitly denies Creator-God concept of different traditions, including branches of Hinduism.

4. Wilber has arbitrarily put together a few Vedanta concepts of spiritual "progress" ( savikalpa and nirvikalpa samadhi ) within the Buddhist framework. More yet: a poorly defined term "sahaja samadhi", which rather fuzzily denotes spontaneous rising of higher meditative consciousness, or, on the other hand, sometimes equals Christian vita unitiva or Sufi baqa ( Ruysbroeck's term would be "superessential life" ), is in Wilberspeak the ultimate spiritual state of abiding in permanent fusion of mundane and supramundane consciousness, of transcendence and immanence in their fullness.

This is an extremist interpretation of what "the ultimate state" ( if such a state exists at all ) of a mystic could look alike. Virtually all authoritative texts, both East and West ( 14- 28 ) refute him. This is especially visible in Charles Luk's ( 14 )classic translations of Zen patriarchs's sayings and elucidations where the state of satori/wu is defined as that of expanded and mobile consciousness immersed in Emptiness ( Christian Neoplatonists would use the term Godhead, Barbelo-Gnostics Fore-Father and Advaitists Nirguna Brahman ), but not identically equal to it nor static. In short, the individual mind's layers have been erased, but not mind as such blotted out; otherwise, one could not have a functional human being. Ramakrishna ( 17) and Narayanananda ( 27 ) have frequently described this "descent" of consciousness from nirvikalpa samadhi, concomitant with relative restriction and "personalization" of field of awareness, with eternal life perpetually glowing and "infusing" the ground of active individual consciousness.

But, our following task is to elucidate the semantics Wilber has misused in his tractate.

Mahayana Proper

As an authoritative text ( 3 ) claims: " The Mahayana consists of Sutra and Tantra vehicles." Ch'an/Zen Buddhism belongs to the Sutra tradition, Tibetan to the path of the Tantra ( generally, there are acknowledged four "schools" of Tantric Buddhism: Mantrayana, Vajrayana, Kalachakrayana and Sahajayana. Sometimes is the entire Tibetan Buddhism equated with Vajrayana ( six yogas of Naropa plus Mahamudra ).

Or, ( 8 ): " In general, the vast corpus of Buddhist scriptures may be distinguished into two basic types: sutras and tantras. Traditionally, the sutras are held to be discourses the Buddha spoke openly in his lifetime ( c. 560- 480 B.C.E. ) whereas the tantras are the discourses he, taking the form of various meditational deities or ideal beings, taught directly to special disciples". ( then follows a somewhat different catalog of tantric practices, centering on the two chief ones, the Guhyasamaja Tantra and the Kalachakra Tantra ).

Be as it may, we shall just notice that the Trikaya doctrine, which is fundamental for Wilber as the lens through which he "sees" and the key whereby he decodes Kosmos's complexities, is poorly ( better, inadequately ) explicated in Zen texts ( 4, 5 ). The sixth Zen patriarch Hui Neng, for instance, tried clumsily ( and incoherently ) to interpret the Trikaya as different strata of meditative consciousness ( but, till the end of his sutra, changed his mind ( no pun intended ) and, as far as the Trikaya is concerned, Hui Neng's "Platform Sutra" ends in devastating confusion. ) Cynics could make a sidekick remark, seeing all futile efforts of various Zen patriarchs, grappling with elementary logical problems posed by any ambitious metaphysics ( and Mahayana is exactly this ) in such an impotent and unsatisfactory manner, that the "no-mind" doctrine is the appropriate and literal description of the Zen state of affairs. For a better understanding of the Trikaya doctrine, we must turn to the religious, pre-philosophical mindset.

When one considers some expositions of the early Trikaya doctrine ( 6, 12, 13 ), it is easy to recognize one-to-one correspondence, ontology-wise, with Advaita Vedanta doctrines as expounded by Ramana Maharshi ( 7,). In essence, the Trikaya had not originally possessed cosmological or psychological connotations ( as we know them from Trika Shaivism, Sufism or Kabbalah ). In its "pure" form, the Trikaya doctrine teaches that Buddha ( primarily defined soteriologically; metaphysical ( but not cosmological ) nuances were added in the process ) possesses three bodies variously defined ( 3, 8, 10, 12 ):

  1. Dharmakaya - Body of the Doctrine, Truth Body, Law Body
  2. Sambhogakaya -Enjoyment Body, Complete Enjoyment Body, Compensation Body, Adorned Body
  3. Nirmanakaya - Emanation Body, Transformed Body, Changeable Body

( I have purposely included translations from refs. 4, 8, 9, 12 in order to show all the confusion. Therefore, to avoid further misunderstandings, from now on I'll use Sanskrt names for three Buddha's "bodies" exclusively ).

So, we will describe the Trikaya doctrine ( and show inconsistencies in Wilber's approach re various aspects of its interpretation ) in its "impersonations" as:

  1. Buddhology, i.e. Soteriology
  2. Ontology
  3. Cosmology
  4. Thanatology

One important notice has to be added: in some Buddhist texts, Dharmakaya is, so to speak, "divided" into two bodies:

Dharmakaya Jnanadharmakaya ( Wisdom Body )
Svabhavikakaya ( Nature Body )

Jnanadharmakaya being fuzzily defined as the Buddha's omniscient consciousness, and Svabhavikakaya as the emptiness of that consciousness ( 8 ).

On the other hand, apart from a few treatises and teachings that consider Svabhavikakaya to be the fourth, somehow "higher" degree than the Trikaya, the majority opinion is best exposed in following words: " Svabhavikakaya denotes the essence of the Buddha aspects (Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya , Nirmanakaya). If you compare Dharmakaya with water vapor, Sambhogakaya with clouds and Nirmanakaya with rain, then Svabhavikakaya is the essence of it all - water." This is in concordance with the definition that the Trikaya is the three-faceted diamond of one, Buddha essence.


As the best scholarly treatise I've encountered so far ( 12 ) claims, the Trikaya had been first and foremost a doctrine of salvation, or Buddhology, in its grappling with concepts of Buddha nature and its role in liberation curiously similar to vicissitudes ( but not the solutions ) of Western Christology. In author's words, the early Trikaya as Buddhology is defined as follows:

The doctrine of the Trikaya as Buddhology,

after its completion, but yet free from 'ontological'

and cosmogonic speculations.

(A) The very nature of a Buddha is the Bodhi (Enlightenment), or Prajnaparamita (Perfect Wisdom), or knowledge of the Law (Dharma), i.e. of the absolute Truth. By acquiring this knowledge, nirvana is realized in potentia or in actu. The Dharmakaya, Body of Law, of a Buddha is the Buddha in nirvana or in nirvana-like rapture (Samadhikaya = Dharmakaya).

(B) A Buddha, as long as he is not yet merged into nirvana, possesses and enjoys, for his own sake and for others' welfare, the fruit of his charitable behaviour as a Bodhisattva. The second body is the Body of Enjogment or Beatific Body (Sambhogakaya)

(C) Human beings known as Buddhas are magical contrivances (Nirmanakaya) created at random by real Buddhas, i.e. by Buddhas possessed of beatific bodies sovereigns of celestial worlds, Tusita-heavens or 'Paradises' (Sukhavatis).


It is evident from the quoted pasasage that it reflects an utterly mythopoetic mode of consciousness, not susceptible to rational analysis of, God forbid, scholastic dissections. For this, we'll have to turn to further development of the central Mahayanist mythos.


As Valle Poussin and Radhakrishnan have clarified, a rather primitive mythic soteriology had grown into ontology very similar to that of later Advaita Vedanta ( which may have inherited it from its former adversary ).

In short, the following correspondences are valid:

MAHAYANA BUDDHISM ( early religious metaphysics ) Advaita Vedanta ( Ramana Maharshi ) WESTERN TRADITION

Resemblant to any developed metaphysics ( from Aristotle to Heidegger ), the ontological Trikaya doctrine is not concerned with minutiae of creation or life. Being metaphysics, it is not involved in proto-scientific analyses like materialists Lokayata or Epicureans; its central ambition remains grasping the Reality as Whole and distinguishing the Real from the Unreal, permanent from the impermanent, and to give a coherent philosophical structure to the religious mythology. In essence, the ontological Trikaya is a counterpart to European medieval scholastic metaphysics one can find in St.Thomas Aquinas or Duns Scotus.


If Mahayana possesses anything resemblant Neoplatonist emanationist doctrine, it is the mythic cosmological system centering on the Mount Meru and swarming with multifarious lokas/worlds and dhatus/realms. It is beyond the scope of this essay to delve into intricacies of the Tibetan fantastic mythogenetic cosmology ( one can find details in books 3, 9 ( page 92 ) and 11 )- what we want to emphasize is that Wilber's hypothesis would have been better served had he used the Tibetan cosmology instead of quasi-emanationist misreading of the Trikaya doctrine of the ontological variant.

We shall just briefly outline a part of the Tibetan mythic cosmography which parallels more ubiquitous Western and Hindu cosmologies and which, in essence, represents an adequate travelogue of Wilber's yarn on "soul's" voyage. Mahayana operates with three worlds:


Essentially, Wilber "splitted" both Dharmakaya and Sambhogakaya, wrongly attributing them cosmological implications. His "Nirmanakaya" is Kamadhatu, his "Sambhogakaya" equals Arupa + Rupadhatu.

Wilber's "Dharmakaya" has some attributes of the doctrinal Dharmakaya ( which is, under various and frequently conflicting names, used as the "Sun" of the Tibetan cosmography: the terms are Dharmakaya, Nirvana, Dharmadhatu ); yet, he's again "innovative" in splitting the Dharmakaya ( something other Tantric Buddhists, enmeshed in their own doctrinal dubieties, had never dreamt of ).


Regarding "The Tibetan Book of the Dead" ( 10 ), Wilber has, in chapter 18, repeated and expanded mistakes he had made in chapter 9 of "The Atman project" ( 1 ). Succinctly:

1. he has attributed to the three bodies of the Trikaya cosmological dimension, misinterpreting the Sambhogakaya and the Nirmanakaya almost as quasi-theosophical worlds/planes of created cosmos, whilst these concepts possess ontological dimension at best. The Trikaya is suprasamsaric and supracosmic, beyond creation circumscribed by terms immersed in duality; no "unenlightened being" dwells in, say, the Nirmanakaya, the abode of Padma Sambhava.

2. Wilber has, more or less explicitly, set up the table of correspondences:


But- these correspondences are entirely wrong: various Bardo states are, as it were, "chances" for consciousness-principle ( Knower, shes-pa, chaitanya, vijnana ) to realize Buddhahood in various transcosmic and trans-samsaric modes of the Buddha Essence ( sometimes called Dharma-Dhatu, sometimes Svabhavakaya or Svabhavikakaya )- for instance, consciousness-principle may, in potentia, while abiding in Chonyid Bardo realize Buddhahood in the Sambhogakaya, or as a perfectly enlightened being in a "body of bliss"; lest he did so, he'll be whirled down to samsaric existence, epitomized as six Lokas/Worlds, "emanated" and created universes. In short, not one mode of the Trikaya is the abode of an unenlightened being. The whole Trikaya is utterly transcosmic, transtemporal and supramundane. Here, Wilber ( probably under the Theosophical spell of "planes" ) makes the paramount error: it would be as if aspects of the Christian Trinity were equated with planes/universes; say, Christ Logos with noetic/archetypal universe or Holy Ghost/Paraclete with psychic or physical planes.

In essence, Bardo states are not modes of existence or being apart from consciousness, because of Yogachara grand equation: Macrocosmic Mind ( Alaya-Vijnana/all-consciousness )= Reality in all its forms and manifestations. The three Bardo states ( in fact, Bardo Thodol enumerates six Bardo states ( 10, Book 1, part 2 )- it's the post-mortem existence that is "divided" in three Bardo "levels" of mind ) are different modes of Mind/Consciousness, where microcosmic mind ( consciousness principle, chaitanya, vijnana, shes-pa ) battles between drive for liberation/Buddhahood and karmic propensities pulling it into the vortex of samsara.

3. Still, the worst is to come: with irresistible charm of New Age irresponsibiliy, Wilber lumped together concepts not only irreconcilable with these traditions ( what has Atman to do in a book reflecting the wisdom of the Tibetan Buddhist Canon ? ), but also freely mixed undefined terms ( "soul" ), juxtaposing them onto Freudian ideological paradigm ( "incest, castration" ), and, did a Herculean misreading at that ( equating "karmic propensities", which include everything, from sex drive to aggressiveness and sloth, with Freudian "Eros" is an example of irresponsible freely-associating mindset ).

At the end: this misreading, with its quasi-Jungian overtones ( psychologizing the central book of world's thanatology ) is just another nail in Wilber's "transpersonal" coffin.


Link to Amazon com (links to Amazon com pages)

1. Ken Wilber: The Atman Project

2. Ken Wilber: A Brief History of Everything

3. Mark Tatz and Jody Kent: Rebirth: The Tibetan Game of Liberation

4. The Diamond Sutra and The Sutra of Hui Neng

5. John Blofeld: The Zen Teaching of Huang Po

6. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan: History of Indian Philosophy

7. Ramana Maharshi: Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi

8. Daniel Cozort: Highest Yoga Tantra

9. W. Evans Wentz: Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines

10.W. Evans Wentz: The Tibetan Book of the Dead

11.L. A. Govinda: Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism

12.Louis De La Vallee Poussin: Studies in Buddhist Dogma

13. Nalinaksha Dutt: The Doctrine of Kaya in Hinayana and Mahayana
( also available at )

14. Charles Luk ( Lu Kuan Yu ): Ch'an and Zen Teaching, vols 1-3.

15. Sri Aurobindo: The Life Divine

16. Sri Aurobindo: The Synthesis of Yoga

17. ---------: Sayings of Sri Ramakrishna

18. Gerda Walther: Phaenomenologie der Mystik
( a Croatian translation has been used )

19. Evelyn Underhill: Mysticism

20. John of Ruysbroeck: Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage ( both available at

21. William Chittick: The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al- Arabi's Metaphysics of Imagination

22. William Chittick: Self Disclosure of God

23. Roberto Assagioli: Psychosynthesis

24. Roberto Assagioli: The Act of Will

25. Mircea Eliade: Yoga, Immortality and Freedom

26. Swami Muktananda: Play of Consciousness

27. Swami Narayanananda: The Mysteries of Man, Mind and Mind-Functions

28. Hazrat Inayat Khan: Collected Works ( available at )

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