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An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

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David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).

Andrea Diem-Lane is a tenured Professor of Philosophy at Mt. San Antonio College, where she has been teaching since 1991. Professor Diem has published several scholarly books and articles, including The Gnostic Mystery and When Gods Decay. She is married to Dr. David Lane, with whom she has two children, Shaun-Michael and Kelly-Joseph.


The Disappointing Buddha

Understanding the Vicarious Nature of Spiritual Hero Worship

Learning the Deeper Lesson from Ken Wilber's The Atman Project

David Lane and Andrea Diem-Lane

We live in a world of our own delusions, even as we attempt to escape them by creating even more fantastic ones in the process.

When I first read Ken Wilber's The Atman Project back in 1980, I was deeply impressed with his thesis that we are “attempting to find Spirit in ways that prevent it and force substitute gratifications.” Of course, one could replace “Spirit” with any higher ideal that requires discipline or sacrifice, since the modus operandi is the same: instead of doing the hard work ourselves, we look for exterior symbols that can do the heavy lifting. Simply put, we are lazy and we would rather project our desire on to some person or object and let them do the necessary requirements than actually do the deep reflection within our own beings. The glitch in this process, however, is that it ultimately doesn't work. The idealized Icon, when closely analyzed, fails to live up to our heightened expectations. Our chosen Buddhas, Christs, Babas, Gurus, end up forever disappointing us, since like the statues we have made of them in the past, they invariably have feet of clay.

The largest religion in the world, Christianity, exemplifies Wilber's premise perfectly with its dogma of Vicarious Atonement, clearly defined by Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry as: “The teaching that the atonement which states that Christ's death was 'legal.' It satisfied the legal justice of God. Jesus bore the penalty of sin when He died on the cross. His death was a substitution for the believers. In other words, He substituted Himself for them upon the cross. Jesus hanged in our place as He bore our sin in His body on the cross.” This doctrine has its historical legacy in 1 Peter, 24, wherein it is claimed “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.”

This is a compelling promise since it is not up to us “by works” to mitigate our sinful nature but up to the Son of God who has all the responsibility for our salvation. All we have to do is accept such a divine bounty and let the healing process begin. The caveat, though, is that one actually has to have faith that such a promise is real. Those of a skeptical bent tend to scoff at such theological claims, particularly if they are well versed in how many other religions offer heavenly rewards for holding the right set of beliefs.

This remind one anew of the old television game show, “Let's Make a Deal”. Monty Hall, the original host, would tell a participant that there is a wonderful prize behind one of three doors. The problem is that two of the doors may have nothing of value. Which one do you pick? Religions are in some ways similar, except that there are thousands of more options: Is the liberation of your soul behind door number 1: Krishna? Or, door number 2: Buddha? Or door number 3: Jesus Christ? Or, in a surprise addition, door number 4: L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology? And the list goes on.

On the surface, it is a silly religious game we play since nobody knows if there really is a thing as “soul liberation”, much less a rightful choice that insures such. But as naïve human beings we play it seriously all the same. We are like our misguided statistician friend, Blaise Pascal, (1623-1662) who argues that we make a gambler's choice. It is now commonly known as Pascal's Wager which “offers a pragmatic reason for believing in God: even under the assumption that God's existence is unlikely, the potential benefits of believing are so vast as to make betting on theism rational.”

But here Pascal not only begs the real question lurking behind that Monty Hall like curtain (why if there is a God or a Truth do we have to choose in the first place?), but displays how biased he is in favoring only one of the options as being viable, dismissing in the process the millions of gods in Hinduism, the various paths of Buddhism, the multiple schools of Paganism, and all of the newer religions which he seemed unfamiliar with at the time (Sikhism?).

We simply don't like uncertainty and not knowing, so instead in our existential moments of dread, like our depressed friend Søren Kierkegaard, we take “leaps of faith” to somehow get us over the abyss we confront in our lives.

This is where I think Wilber's Atman Project is instructive since instead of confronting (metaphor alert) the Sisyphusian task of rolling up the heavy stone up the hill ourselves, we imagine that someone or something has can do it for us.

A Jesus, a Buddha, a Guru, a Book, a Revelation . . . all become magical talismans for achieving what we are not. I may be a sinner, but Jesus is sinless. I may dull and petty, but my Buddha is enlightened. I may have made no inner progress, but surely my chosen Guru has achieved the very highest. I may be a prostitute but Mary is a Virgin. And the projective list goes on and on.

Religion is fueled by our self-perceived lack. And, thus the Wilberian Atman Project is our own way to achieve what we desire by elevating our Istha Devas and defending their relative statuses by our own imaginings

We live in a world of our own delusions, even as we attempt to escape them by creating even more fantastic ones in the process.

This becomes painfully obvious when we see just how truly fragile our belief systems really are.

As Father Costello, a Dominican priest at my old alma mater, Notre Dame High School, unequivally exclaimed to us in his Freshman religion class, “If Jesus Christ didn't bodily resurrect, I would rip off my holy garments and party like a hedonist.”

Or, as the fundamentalist Protestant wails, “If somewhere in the Bible it says 2 + 2 equals 5, I would not doubt it.” Why? Because the Holy Book is errant and thus cannot be wrong, even when it is.

On the other side of the globe, the logic is the same even if the content and the geographical context are different. “My Baba has entered into the highest region of spiritual attainment. He is the greatest of all living gurus.” When asked how he knows this, the devotee confesses that it is manifest in Baba's eyes.

Religious Icon projection is Freudian transference on meth and because we favor our substitutions for the real thing, we fight tooth and nail to defend our fantastic phantasms, lest they evaporate away like the Wicked Witch of East in the Wizard of Oz who melts whenever plain water is thrown on her.

Or, to invoke a 1960s song, Puff the Magic Dragon, whose lyrics though invoking images from the beautiful island of Kauai, explains poetically the childish nature of our believed in Deities:

Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist
in a land called Honnah Lee
Little Jackie Paper loved that rascal Puff
And brought him strings and sealing wax and other fancy stuff, oh!

Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist
in a land called Honnah Lee
Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist
in a land called Honnah Lee

Together they would travel on a boat with billowed sail
Jackie kept a lookout perched on Puff's gigantic tail
Noble kings and princes would bow whene'er they came
Pirate ships would lower their flags when Puff roared out his name, oh!

Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist
in a land called Honnah Lee
Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist
in a land called Honnah Lee

A dragon lives forever but not so little boys
Painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys
One grey night it happened, Jackie Paper came no more
And Puff that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar

His head was bent in sorrow, green scales fell like rain
Puff no longer went to play along the cherry lane
Without his life-long friend, Puff could not be brave
So Puff that mighty dragon sadly slipped into his cave, oh!

Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist
in a land called Honnah Lee
Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist
in a land called Honnah Lee

When we realize our Atman Projects, our own dragons of spirit descend into the very abyss that we ourselves so assiduously attempted to avoid.

As the song lyric so paintively concludes, “A dragon lives forever but not so little boys.”

When it comes to religion, do we ever really grow up? Or do we, as Wilber and others have suggested, continually manufacture surrogates so we can persist in our magical wish fulfillment?

It is here that I find Nietzsche instructive, not only because he spoke about the death of god, our idealized projection, but more importantly about what we would do with our lives once we realized that our prior beliefs were unsustainable.

Nietzsche's Myth of Eternal Recurrence is a thought experiment worth considering over and over again (of course, the pun is intended), since it forces us to confront how we would act if everything we did had to be repeated for eternity without being able to change a single gesture.

If we knew we lived in such universe and were given this gem of knowledge, how would we respond for the next twenty, forty, or sixty years? Change everything knowing full well that it will be recycled for infinity? Or, change nothing at all, realizing that acceptance of the high, low, and in-between is the only key to contenment?

Nietzsche's myth is a clarion call to resist the Sirens of Sirenum scopuli who with their enchanting songs only leave us voyagers shipwrecked and waylaid from our true destination. Wilber's Atman Project is a process of delay, a postponement of confronting the reality of our situation. As the wise sage from Hoshiarpur smartly opined, "O, man your real helper is your own Self and your own Faith, but you are badly mistaken and believe that somebody from without comes to help you. No Hazrat Mohammad, No Lord Rama, Lord Krishna or any God or goddess or Guru comes from without. This entire game is that of your impressions and suggestions which are ingrained upon your mind, through your eyes and ears and of your Faith and Belief.”

But are we ready to transcend our projective arcs and proceed unencumbered and unknowing into the source from which our very consciousness arises? Or, are we more predisposed to rely on proxy representatives to do our bidding? If we succumb to the latter option, we are left to be spectators to our own journey. Yes, it will be safer, less demanding, and temporarily satisfying, but in the end it will leave us empty and spiritually vacuous.


The following movies I made in the past should serve as good bookends:

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