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

This essay is an endnote in the dissertation "Ontological vs. developmental aspects of transpersonal theory: A comparative study" defended by th author at the California Institute of Integral Studies for a Ph.D. in East-West Psychology in 1999. For a dissertation abstract see the bottom of this essay.

Wilber's misreading
of Sant Mat

Chris Zissis

Sant Mat, or as it is otherwise known, depending upon the lineage one follows, Surat Shabd Yoga, is a distinct and little-known teaching. (For example, Feuerstein's comprehensive survey of yoga [1989] doesn't mention it.) Yet another term for it is Radhasoami. Whatever the name employed, all lines (in modern times, at least) stem from founder Shiv Dayal Singh, also known as Soamiji Maharaj, b. 1867. The particular line of relevance to the present study is that of Kirpal Singh, whom alone Wilber cites.[1]

Sant Mat, along with Theosophy and Eckankar, is one of those teachings that stresses the objective nature of the "inner worlds", the superphysical levels of existence. However, in doing so, in no way are any levels of the totality left out, as Wilber seems to suggest, in characterizing these as merely "subtle level" teachings. Interestingly, it appears quite clearly that Wilber takes his misconception in its entirety from Da Free John's earlier work—The Paradox of Instruction (1977), in particular.

There, in an extended section, Da Free John outlines his three-fold comparative model of spiritual traditions, which Wilber appears to have adopted in its entirety. This model, familiar to readers of The Atman Project, comprises the three levels or stages of spiritual practice, viz., gross/Nirmanakaya, subtle/ Sambhogakaya, and causal/Dharmakaya, with the further addition of the Svabhavikakaya, the nondual, resolving the others, and in Da Free John's approach, seen as providing kind of a "short cut" through all these. The reducio ad absurdum of Adi Da/Bubba Free John's misinterpretation lies in the following comment:

Although the esoteric descriptions of the subtle path [i.e., Sant Mat] speak of regions above the sahasrar or crown center, these essentially refer to subtle perceptions associated with various regions of the brain.... (1977, p. 147, nt. 6.)

This of course is in direct opposition to the teachings of the above-mentioned paths, where the brain and bodily system have been left far behind.

The misreading itself has several facets. The first of these has to do with the nature of light and sound itself. These twin aspects form the experiential heart of Sant Mat practice, which is based on placing one's attention upon them in their inner (i.e., superphysical) manifestations. These in turn serve to draw the indwelling soul out of the body-consciousness and into metaphysical realms, which in this tradition are objectively conceived and experienced.

The key misconception is this: That light and sound is confined to a merely "subtle" level manifestation. Not so! These twin aspects are found throughout the creation, from their grossest manifestation, as physical light and sound, on "up" to causal and nondual forms. Indeed, an all-important distinction is made in Sant Mat between the form of sound current that pervades the lower (dual) worlds and that found in the higher (nondual), called respectively varnatmik and dhunatmik. The former is considered the reflection or echo of the latter.

Another major misconception found in Wilber's theorizing is the idea that all superphysical planes are "crammed" into the subtle level, i.e., that no such planes or levels can be found in Wilber's causal domain of consciousness. Again, not true! This is a gross oversimplification. The mere fact of these worlds being metaphysically objective does not mean they are inherently "subtle" alone, and "sub-causal" on that account. The causal worlds, and indeed even the nondual, are just that: worlds. True, the higher one ascends, the more difficult they are to characterize and conceive of in our waking brain consciousness. But at no point is their independent ontological status in question.

Further, these higher realms, even the nondual, are said in this tradition (as well as in Eckankar and Theosophy) to be peopled with a multiplicity of entities—a point that Zimmerman (1996, pp. 43-44) noted in his discussion of transpersonal ecology. That is, there is in these worlds a plurality of beings, and not just the blank "oneness" so often spoken of.[2]

Finally, there is Wilber's misread of the Sant Mat cosmology itself. This is revealed most clearly in The Atman Project, but is implicit in all of his writings, and is carried forward throughout all his subsequent works.

Here is that misconception, presented in tabular fashion. First, Wilber's equivalence:

Wilber Sant Mat


Anami Lok[3]
Agam Lok
Alakh Lok
Sat Lok
Bhanwar Gupha
Daswan Dwar
Sahasra dal Kanwal

Ajna chakra

And here, for comparison, is the corrected equivalence, based on Turner (1995), adding the Vedantic equivalents for the sake of greater ease of comparison:

Wilber Sant Mat Vedanta


Anami Lok[5]
Agam Lok[5]
Alakh Lok
Sat Lok
Bhanwar Gupha
Daswan Dwar
Sahasra dal Kanwal
Ajna chakra

ananda m.k.
vijnana m.k.
mano m.k.

prana m.k.

["m.k." = "mayakosa"]

Note that even here Wilber's singular "subtle level" corresponds to at least three distinct superphysical realms.


  1. The best introduction to Sant Mat remains Johnson (1985), while a good summary of Kirpal Singh's Surat Shabd Yoga can be found in Singh (1983).
  2. One possible explanation for this discrepancy would be to speculate that for some entrants into these remote states, their discrimination is insufficient. That is, they may simply be overwhelmed by the intensity of perception on these ultra-exalted metaphysical levels, which serves to drown out any sensate distinctions, even those belonging to the inner, spiritual senses. Another hypothesis would be to cite the contribution of the distinction between in- vs. out-of-body perception. That is, the spiritual methodology of Sant Mat (and Eckankar and Theosophy as well, largely) is based upon an out-of-body perspective, where the soul is no longer participating in physical-level reality, in contrast to other approaches, where this link is never severed.
  3. The term "lok" means world, plane or region. Here again is emphasized the viewpoint, characteristic of Sant Mat, wherein these states of consciousness are seen as corresponding to objectively real or actual levels of being.
  4. Wilber calls these seven levels, from Trikuti to Anami Lok, the "seven higher shabd chakras." Note that Sat Lok on "up" are all nondual in nature.
  5. These two are states of God-realization, which is distinguished from Self-realization in both Sant Mat and Eckankar. Vedanta and Wilber appear to speak only of refined Self-realization, or "Monadic realization" in Theosophical terminology.
  6. Note that Wilber's use of the term "nondual" is essentially different from its use in Vedanta. In the latter, nirvikalpa samadhi—for Wilber, the characteristic mental state of the "high causal"—is union with the nondual, where any remaining sense of duality of "form" and "formless" represents only an incomplete form of this samadhi, with a corresponding ignorance remaining, which needs yet to be developmentally, but not ontologically removed. (That is, not involving or requiring further ontological-metaphysical ascent.)


Bubba Free John. (1977). The Paradox of Instruction. San Francisco: Dawn Horse.

Feuerstein, G. (1989). Yoga: The Technology of Ecstasy. Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher.

Johnson, J. (1985). The Path of the Masters. Punjab: Radha Soami Satsang Beas.

Rothberg, D. & Kelly, S, (Eds.) (1998). Ken Wilber in Dialogue. Wheaton, IL: Quest/T.P.H.

Singh, K. (1983). The Crown of Life. Anaheim: Ruhani Satsang.

Turner, R. P. (1995). Esoteric psychology: Expanding transpersonal vision. Journal of Esoteric Psychology, 9(1), 90-102.

Zimmerman, M. (1996). A transpersonal diagnosis of the ecological crisis. (In Rothberg & Kelly, 1998, p. 108.)

Dissertation Abstract

In this dissertation, three of the leading transpersonal psychological theories (those of Ken Wilber, Michael Washburn, and A. H. Almaas/Hameed Ali) are examined and compared, both with each other and with a fourth, strictly ontological model. Using the lattermost, an attempt is made to reconcile the developmental understandings of the first three theories by assuming a common underlying ontology. In the course of the comparison, some important deficiencies in the theories of Washburn and Wilber are revealed. Washburn's involve insufficient delineation of metaphysical elements, and Wilber's involve some errors of interpretation regarding the teachings of Sant Mat, and an errant understanding of the definition of "consciousness" in his notion of "retro-Romanticism". The author concludes that, while a strictly ontological unanimity is unproblematic, a similar degree of developmental consistency is not forthcoming. The dissertation ends with a few recommendations for further research directions in transpersonal theory, primarily involving the nature of the proposed interaction between physical and superphysical levels of matter-energy and consciousness.

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