Ken Wilber’s “The Fourth Turning”

by L. Ron Gardner

[This is a raw, unedited article I just finished writing. It will be included in my Zen text, which will be published in 2019.]

Ken Wilber is considered by many to be America's greatest living philosopher. Wilber, who bills himself as a “pandit” (Dharma scholar/teacher), specializes in integral theory and solutions, which provide the lens through which he views humanity’s past, present and future. And in his 2015 book "The Fourth Turning: Imagining the Evolution of an Integral Buddhism," Wilber focuses his “integral lens” on Buddhism (the religion he most vibes with), and envisages another (or fourth) turning of its wheel that would embody the principles that are at the heart of his Integral philosophy.

In The Fourth Turning’s Introduction, Wilber informs us that the world's religions "need to get serious about updating their fundamental dogmas." He says that the core ideas can be maintained, but that these new discoveries about spiritual experiences, spiritual intelligence, and spiritual development during the past thousand years need to be integrated into an Integral framework that includes and transcends the central teachings of the traditions. I agree with Wilber's goal but disagree with some of his ideas about the "upgrade," and I'll detail my disagreements in this article. Most importantly, I think Wilber misses the essence of what a new Turning of the Wheel should be about.

Wilber’s book is arranged in three parts (with Part 1 focusing on Buddhism’s past, Part 2 on its present, and Part 3 on its future). In Part 1, Wilber presents a brief history of Buddhism’s essential past, meaning the Three (or Four) Turnings of the Wheel. According to Wilber, the First Turning, by the Buddha, represented "renunciation," the Second, by Madhyamika, was about "transformation," and the Third, by Yogacara (and Vajrayana), introduced "transmutation." As Wilber points out, Vajrayana can also be viewed independently as the Fourth Turning.

In my opinion, Wilber doesn't grok what these Turnings are really about because he doesn't deeply understand Buddhism or mysticism. I'll summarize what the Turnings are really about, then deconstruct Wilber's Buddhism and mysticism.

I maintain that there have been Four Turnings of the Wheel in Buddhism: 1) The Buddha's original Dharma, 2) Madhyamika's emptiness Dharma, 3) Yogacara's Mind-only (or Buddha-nature) Dharma, and 4) Vajrayana's tantra Dharma. And in contrast to Wilber, who only envisions spicing up Buddhadharma with elements of his Integral theory (mainly transpersonal developmental psychology and a sociopsychology of religion), I say that the Fifth Turning of the Wheel is fundamentally about a new school of Buddhism that demystifies the previous Turnings and incorporates their respective essences into a truly holistic new Buddhadharma. I call this new school of Buddhism "Electrical Buddhism," and I do so because, as I'll explain, each of the Turnings after the Buddha's represents one-third of Ohm's Law.

The First Turning of the Wheel, by Gautama Buddha himself, set the Wheel in motion; the second, by Madhyamika, emphasized emptiness (Absence, or "Ohms reduction"); the third, by Yogacara, accentuated Mind (Presence, or "Voltage"); and the fourth, by Vajrayana, focused on Energy (Power, or "Current"). The Fifth Turning will not only unify Buddhism, but also integrate it with Christianity; and I elaborate this theme in my book Electrical Christianity: A Revolutionary Guide to Jesus’ Teachings and Spiritual Enlightenment.

I call the paradigm that integrates Ohm's Law with Christianity and Buddhism the Electrical Spiritual Paradigm (ESP), and I contend that this paradigm radically demystifies spiritual En-Light-enment. I will now provide a summary of it in relation to the Three Turnings that followed Gautama’s.

First, for those who are unfamiliar with Ohm's Law, it states that "the strength or intensity of an unvarying electric current is directly proportional to the electromotive force and inversely proportional to the resistance in a circuit." Ohm's Law--where V = voltage (electromotive force), I = amperage (intensity of current), and R = ohms (units of resistance)--can be summarized in three formulas:

V = IR; I = V/R; R = V/I

(Note: Any form of the Ohm's Law equation can be derived from the other two via simple algebra.)

Madhyamika, the first of the three Turnings that followed Gautama's, emphasized emptiness, which equates to self-emptying, or Ohms (or resistance) reduction. Then Yogacara, the subsequent Turning, emphasized Mind, or Conscious Presence, which generates Consciousness-Force or Pressure, which is akin to Voltage (electromotive force). In electricity, electrical energy, or Amperge, is directly proportional to Voltage and inversely proportional to Ohms reduction; and Vajrayana Buddhism, which turned the Wheel after Yogacara, emphasized spiritual Energy, which is akin to Amperage. In short, each of the three Turnings after Gautama's represents one-third of the fundamental Law of Electricity--Ohm's' Law. Interestingly enough, some scientists argue that electromagnetism is the only fundamental force in the universe. Wilber talks about integrating modern science with Buddhadharma, and to my mind, where this integration should begin is by considering the Turnings of the Wheel within the context of electrical energy, specifically Ohm's Law.

Many imagine that Ken Wilber is an all-time great spiritual teacher. For example, Jim Marion, author of Putting on the Mind of Christ, describes Wilber as "one of the greatest and most brilliant spiritual teachers of all time." In contrast to Marion, I contend that Wilber is hardly the brilliant spiritual teacher or philosopher that many imagine him to be. With this in mind, I'll now point out some of the flaws in Wilber's understanding of Buddhadharma, and Hinduism.

First off, Wilber doesn't understand Emptiness, which he emphasizes in his exegesis of Madhyamika and Yogacara. He conflates Emptiness with Ultimate Reality, which he also conflates with Nothingness. If he had studied Ayn Rand's Objectivist epistemology, he'd realize that he's guilty of the reification of zero, attributing ontological status to a non-Existent. Nothingness does not exist, so form, or existents, cannot derive from it. Emptiness is likewise a non-Existent; it is simply a term to describe the absence of existents. Emptiness is a derivative, not the Great Ontological Primary. There must be Something to be empty, and that Something is Mind, or Consciousness. Unbeknownst to Wilber, Mind is empty, or formless, but it is not Emptiness; it is Consciousness. Emptiness is really about self-emptying, or self-nullification, which allows Consciousness-Force (Voltage) to transmute into a Light-Energy current (Amperage).

Wilber, in goose step with the Heart Sutra, tells us that form is not different from emptiness, and that emptiness is not different from form. If the two aren't different, then where is the need for an Emptiness doctrine? Wilber also tells us that Emptiness is a synonym for Suchness, or Thusness, or Isness. The Hindus, properly, laugh at this. According to them, Isness, or Being (Sat) = Consciousness (Siva)-Spirit (Shakti). But Wilber doesn't understand Being, reducing it to just Spirit, which he conflates with Emptiness. Spirit is not emptiness; it is the en-Light-ening Action, or Energy, of Being. Being is Consciousness-Spirit, or Consciousness-Energy. Spirit (Clear-Light Energy, or the Sambhogakaya) is the "objective" half of Being, while Consciousness, or Mind, is the "subjective" half.

In addition to his ignorance of Emptiness, Suchness, and Spirit, Wilber doesn’t grok the Buddhist Trikaya (Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya, Nirmanakaya), which I say is the same Triple Body as the Christian Trinity (Father, Holy Spirit, Son). Wilber tells us that the Dharmakaya, which is unborn Mind, or timeless Awareness, is synonymous with the Hindu Causal Body. He’s wrong, and if he understood Advaita Vedanta, he'd know that the Anandamaya Kosha, the Bliss Sheath (the fifth of the five sheaths that cover the Soul, or Self, or Buddha-nature) is the Causal Body. The Anandamaya Kosha, or Bliss Sheath, is the same Body, or Dimension, as the Buddhist Bliss (or Light-Energy) Body, the Sambhogakaya, which, when contemplated dualistically rather than nondualistically, functions as a sheath, and thus prevents Self-realization. But Wilber tells us that the Sambhogakaya is analogous to the Subtle Body. Unbeknownst to Wilber, the Subtle Body is analogous to the Pranayama Sheath, the cosmic energy body. The Sambhogakaya is uncreated Clear-Light Energy, and thus is acosmic, rather than cosmic, in nature.

Although Wilber’s description of Yogacara Buddhism and its principle text, the Lankavatara Sutra, is less than “integral” (for example, he doesn’t differentiate Cittamatra from Vijnaptimatra or mention the Tathagatagarbha or Dharmamegha), he, most importantly, does understand that when the Diamond Sutra displaced the Lankavatara, Zen lost its sophistication. He writes:

“Lankavatara Sutra was so important it was passed down to their successors by all 5 of the first Chan (or Zen) Head-Founders in China, as containing the essence of the Buddha’s teachings. In fact, the early Chan school was often referred to as the Lankavatara school, and a history of this early period is entitled Records of the Lankavatara Masters. (Starting with the 6th Head-Founder, Hui Neng, the Diamond Sutra—a treatise solely devoted to pure Emptiness—displaced the Lankavatara, and in many ways Zen lost the philosophical and psychological sophistication of the Lankavatara system and focused almost exclusively on nonconceptual Awareness. Zen Masters were often depicted tearing up sutras, which really amounted to a rejection of the 2 Truths doctrine. This was unfortunate, in my opinion, because in doing so, Zen became less than a complete system, refusing to elaborate conventional maps and models. Zen became weak in relative truths, although it brilliantly succeeded in elaborating and practicing ultimate Truth.)”

Wilber’s vision for an Integral Zen and Buddhism, however, doesn’t involve reemphasizing the Lankavatara. Rather, it’s about marrying his Integral philosophy with Buddhadharma. And in Part 2 of The Fourth Turning, he presents 7 central ideas to achieve this union: 1) structures and structure-stages of development, 2) states and vantage points, 3) shadow and shadow work, 4) quadrants (four perspectives and dimensions that all phenomena possess), 5) typologies, 6) the miracle of "we," 7) the impact of interior thinking.

Because I can't write an entire book here, I will severely limit my critique of these central ideas. Hence, I'll just focus on a few of these ideas, which are nothing new to anyone already familiar with Wilber's Integral philosophy.

Structure-stages, the first of Wilber's central ideas, are the evolutionary philosophical "windows," or vantage points, through which people view and filter their life experiences, including what Wilber identifies as the four major states of humans: gross, subtle, causal, nondual. From the lowest to the highest, these structures-stages, according to Wilber, are: archaic, magic, mythic, rational, pluralistic, integral, and super-integral. Humans can experience any of the four states from the vantage point of any of these stage-structures. According to Wilber, "structures are how we grow up and states are how we wake up."

I think that structure-stages provide a useful tool for understanding the various cultural mindsets throughout history; they explain how these mindsets have evolved while the four major states have remained the same. But just as Wilber doesn't understand the four major states very well, he likewise goes awry with his structure-stages hierarchy. Placing "pluralistic," a euphemistic term for liberal-fascist, above "rational" in his hierarchy bespeaks of libtardism; and the fact that he has been an Obama and Hillary supporter explains his neo-Marxist, or collectivist, sentiments. Just as Wilber is mystically challenged, he is likewise sociopolitically challenged. He ignorantly equates "individual freedom" with "representative democracy," when the latter is a synonym for majority mob rule, which cavalierly and egregiously violates putatively inviolable (or constitutionally-mandated) individual rights (including property rights).

Wilber is not only mystically and sociopolitically challenged, but also epistemologically challenged. If he'd studied Ayn Rand's Objectivist Epistemology instead of hanging his hat on Charles Peirce's Sign Theory, or Semiotic, he'd understand that describing the core of his Integral theory, his Four Quadrant Model (central idea No. 4), as "the four perspectives and dimensions that all phenomena possess" is nonsense. Human minds possess perspectives, phenomena don't.

I second Wilber's fifth central idea, that of typologies--but he misses the boat with the typologies he designates as important in the creation of an Integral Buddhism. In my view, there can be no Integral psychology and no Integral Buddhism without astrology, a nonpareil tool for understanding self, others, and relationships on a karmic level. But Wilber, partially buried in the very zeitgeist "flatland" he heavily criticizes, fails to acknowledge astrology as a valid tool for self-and-other understanding. However, he buys into the Enneagram (a ninefold typology of personality types), which unbeknownst to him, derives from astrology, which subsumes and transcends it as a system of human classification and understanding. Wilber also acknowledges Myers-Briggs personality types as a means to self-understanding. The four fundamental personality types in Myers-Briggs--feeling, sensation, intuition, thinking--correlate closely with the four astrological-elemental types--water, earth, fire, and air--and a professional astrologer, which I was for many years, can assess the "elemental" constitution of individuals far better than the Myers-Briggs test.

Part 3 of Wilber's book, The Future, is simply a superfluous regurgitation, or summary, of Part 2. And speaking of summaries, here is mine of this book: It is simply Wilber's Integral Theory plastered on top of Buddhadharma. If you are already familiar with Wilber's Integral theory, you won't find much, if anything, new here. And Wilber is one of the last writers I'd recommend for anyone wanting to learn what Buddhadharma and mysticism are really about. Wilber is worth a read because his Integral theory, though flawed, is interesting and breaks new ground; but, in my view, the “pandit” is in over his head when it comes to envisaging a Fourth Turning of the Wheel.

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