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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
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).

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The Spiritual Crucible

The Spiritual Crucible

A Critical Guide to America's
Religious/Cultic Renaissance

David Lane


Back in the early 1980s Brian Walsh and I founded a journal entitled Understanding Cults and Spiritual Movements in Del Mar, California. It was designed to provide a critical analysis of a number of new religious movements and their respective founders. Little did we realize that the publication would generate as much controversy as it eventually did. The very first issue was devoted to a critique of John-Roger Hinkins and the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness (MSIA), with the title heading, “The J.R. Controversy.” Just months after it was released, my home was robbed and ransacked on October 5, 1984. It was later documented by Peter McWilliams, author of Life 102: What To Do When Your Guru Sues You (Los Angeles: Prelude Press, 1994) and one-time member of MSIA, that John-Roger Hinkins and one of his students personally burglarized my home and commenced an international smear campaign against me and my informants. J.R., as he was affectionately termed by his following, created a phony front organization entitled The Coalition for Civic and Spiritual Rights out of a P.O. Box on Wilshire Blvd. in Santa Monica, California, that he personally paid for and maintained. Out of this P.O. Box John-Roger sent tens of letters to individuals and organizations around the world alleging that “David Christopher Lane is an informant for the F.B.I. and being financed by them to do his dirty research.” In later letters, J.R. threatened to kill my wife and those defectors from his movement that provided me with inside information about his nefarious activities.

This happened after the very first issue of Understanding Cults and Spiritual Movements and thus I was a bit gun shy when it came to our second issue which focused on the activities of Franklin Jones, who at that time went by the honorific Da Free John. As I mentioned in the updated preface to the piece, “I was not too eager to have a nasty episode with another cult leader, so I decided that I would take a more distanced and academic approach when writing about Da Free John (now known more widely as Adi Da), who was then reaching the zenith of his fame. Yet, even then, I suspected that Da was hiding much about his private life and interactions with his inner circle. Ironically, just days after my long essay on Da was published, a disaffected woman devotee, who alleged that her guru had systematically abused her and others in his fold, filed a lawsuit against him and his group. It generated a media flurry since reports surfaced that Da had several wives and had indulged in all sorts of demeaning and damaging behavior.”

While this particular article was more widely read when it was republished in my book, Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and later in a paperback co-authored with Professor Scott Lowe from the University of Wisconsin, it didn't generate (thankfully) the same blowback as the J.R. essay. Interestingly, however, years later when I was teaching my philosophy class at Mt. San Antonio College, I noticed a stranger on the campus who was following me and appeared to want to talk with me. I finally stopped and turned around and greeted the gentleman.

He inquired, “Are you David Lane, the one who wrote about Da Free John?”

“Yes,” I replied. “That's me.”

“I don't mean to barge in on you unannounced like this, but can we talk somewhere in private. I want to share some information with you about this guru.” As he said these words, I noticed that he seemed somewhat paranoid and had a worried look on his face.

We then went to my office and then for a long walk where he shared his life story. It was a disturbing tale which I won't detail here, but he then subsequently gave me a treasure trove of materials concerning his one-time spiritual mentor, Da Free John. It made for disturbing reading. I think he wanted me to do a full-length exposé of his former teacher, but at that time I was so swamped with other projects that I didn't have the time nor the inclination to plunge further.

The next few issues of Understanding Cults and Spiritual Movements focused on less controversial subjects, such as the interesting similarities of Gnosticism with the teachings of Sant Mat, as espoused by Tulsi Sahib and others. However, one of our final issues contained a book review of Jack Hislop's newly released memoir on the famous Indian guru, Sathya Sai Baba, entitled “My Baba and I.” Although Jack and I had a fruitful and engaging correspondence after my analysis (he even offered his own personal apartment at Sai Baba's center for my proposed stay and would arrange a personal interview with the alleged god-man), I didn't realize at the time that my writings on Sai Baba would eventually lead to death threats on a daily basis for nearly a year.

Well, long story short, although Understanding Cults and Spiritual Movements gained an audience and certainly generated lots of discussion (especially in those pre-Internet days), I couldn't keep publishing the journal since I was too busy working on my Ph.D. dissertation, flying to India repeatedly, and teaching at several colleges. It was just too much to juggle.

Surprisingly, given its short duration, the journal did receive a nice entry in J. Gordon Melton's Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology which provides a succinct summation of the goals and intentions of the periodical.

Understanding Cults and Spiritual Movements (Research Publication Series)
“A short-lived research journal published three times a year in the 1980s and designed to analyze critically new religious groups and their leaders. David Christopher Lane, its editor, defined its goals: "With the continuing growth of new spiritual movements, it is imperative for both the scholar and the seeker to be able to discriminate between groups which are fraudulent and manipulative and those which are genuine and beneficial. The failure to do so has troublesome consequences: witness Jim Jones and Jonestown. What is necessary, therefore, in the examination of religion and its mystical claims—be they old and traditional like Roman Catholicism or new and emerging like Eckankar— with unbridled rational scrutiny. That is, the opportunity to fully investigate every facet about the particular spiritual movement: from the biography of its founder, the history of its organization, the value of its teachings, to the practical application of its techniques, etc. 'Understanding Cults and Spiritual Movements is … interested in promoting rational inquiries into the entire cult phenomenon. Editorially, it does not hold to any particular religious doctrine, nor does it have any church affiliation. Thus, in this way, it is an open system of study primarily concerned with documented appraisements which help in developing a keen sense of critical discrimination.' Lane established a high standard of scholarly reporting and investigation. Lane has become a leading authority on the history of the Radhasoami spiritual movement, and much of the emphasis of Understanding Cults and Spiritual Movements was directed to an examination of the new religions that emerged out of that tradition. Most of the writings originally published in the 1980s have been republished as a book, Exposing Cults. Lane now teaches in Los Angeles.”

It was in the midst of doing various articles and reviews for Understanding Cults and Spiritual Movements and for other publications, such as Laughing Man, The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, The Journal of Humanistic Psychology, and FATE Magazine (where I was a book reviewer for several years) that I conceived the idea that a “spiritual crucible” may be helpful in differentiating a benign spiritual movement from a potentially harmful one. In this connection, I was highly influenced by Ken Wilber's book, A Sociable God: Toward a New Understanding of Religion which was first released in hardback in 1983 and for which I wrote a sparkling review of for Yoga Journal—an excerpt of which was quoted on the back of the very first paperback version of the text. I was astonished to learn from Ken Wilber's new bride, Terry (Treya), telling me over dinner at Gaylord's Indian restaurant in San Francisco that her husband had written A Sociable God in just three or so days. Treya looked over at Ken as she spoke and then mentioned that whenever he was under the spell of a writing fever his bald head turned red, as if he were channeling from a higher power. We all laughed as she regaled in Ken's writing madness.

Ken Wilber and I had talked in person, on the phone, and over the mail about his hyperbolic praise of Da Free John, since I felt it was a blind spot on his part. He did eventually call Da “a fuck-up” but that would be a few years later. Interestingly, “The Paradox of Da Free John: Distinguishing the Message from the Medium” was a not so subtle critique of Ken Wilber's confusion over “insightful writing” equals “insightful master.” It is a common mistake in religious and political circles, ranging from those who elevate Alan Watts to enlightened status because he wrote so well to those who still champion the guru status of Osho (aka Rajneesh) on the basis of his many publications. Yes, one can write well even if that person is a scoundrel. And, yes, one can be a morally enlightened human being without literary skills.

There is no doubt, however, that Ken Wilber's methodology in A Sociable God has had (and still does have) an outsized influence on my thinking. I still think it is one of Wilber's finest works and provides a valuable way of understanding the pros and cons of religion. I first gave a long lecture on the book at the American Academy of Religion Western Region's Conference back in 1984, since I felt it needed a wider audience among academicians.

It was probably around this time that I wrote “A Spiritual Crucible.”

A few years after writing A Sociable God, Ken Wilber partnered with Dick Anthony and others to write Spiritual Choices: The Problem of Recognizing Authentic Spiritual Paths to Inner Transformation (circa 1987). I had received an early proof copy of the text from the publisher since I was going to write a review of it for FATE magazine. It was right around this time that I got a telephone call from Ken Wilber out of the blue asking me for a favor. Apparently, there were parts of Spiritual Choices that he didn't like and his criticism of the same had caused a bit of a breach between him and the other editors. Ken wanted to smooth things over, since he still appreciated the book even if parts where not to his liking. He asked if I could review the book for Yoga Journal. I readily agreed since I very much liked Spiritual Choices, even though it was tilted (biased?) via Anthony to a more Meher Baba-like religious persuasion. While Meher Baba was certainly a most intriguing spiritual teacher, Paul Brunton (refer to his chapter on Baba in A Search in Secret India) and others exposed many of his megalomaniacal proclamations.

Perhaps the most important caveat to keep in mind is that any so-called objective grid by which to appraise gurus and their movements is never wholly objective, since invariably biases and prejudices seep in, despite whatever cautions one may make.

I mention all of this as a preface to my proposed spiritual template. Given that it was first written thirty-six years ago and subsequently republished by request in the Cultic Studies Journal and in my 1994 book, Exposing Cults, there is much that I would add if I had to create a new critical guideline. Perhaps the most important caveat to keep in mind is that any so-called objective grid by which to appraise gurus and their movements is never wholly objective, since invariably biases and prejudices seep in, despite whatever cautions one may make. There are too many angles by which to approach new religions and thus there is no model that perfectly fits each and every religious manifestation.

What such templates do provide is a way to open up further discussion and demand for more information, particularly if the particular guru or movement in question is less than forthcoming.

What seekers need most is twofold: exhaustive information (both pro and con) and utter transparency. Far too often in religion these are in short supply. Instead, what we usually get are extravagant acclamations of how great and wondrous their guru is and how anyone with a contrarian point of view is dismissed as either a heretic or “not evolved enough” to understand the true import of their supremely enlightened master. What would be impressive is a full and unadulterated listing of all the critiques of one's guru and movement and all the controversial elements in his or its checkered history. That rarely if ever happens. We get whitewashed New Age goo speak instead. Ah, the inherent insecurities of religious claims gone unchecked!

The willingness of a guru or a cult to admit to its errors is proportionate to its degree of integrity. In other words, the most scathing criticism of any would be religious leader or movement should (in an ideal world) come directly from themselves and not wait for some investigative journalist to unearth the same.

But alas we don't live in such a place. Thus, we create our templates, regardless of how flawed or partial they may be.

Read with caution the following essay and be sure to add your laundry list to it.

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