Frank Visser, CLIMBING THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN: Reflections on Ken Wilber's “The Religion of Tomorrow”
INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
David 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).
Confessions of a Bibliomaniac
A short history of my book addiction
Yes, I am a book addict. But alas I am very contented one, always on the quest, always in search of that untouched horizon.
I suffer from a most incurable disease. It is technically known as bibliomania, which simply translated means “book madness.” I love books too much. My family is convinced that I got it from my father, Warren, who also suffered from it but to a lesser degree. However, the malady didn't really mutate and take over my body until I was 16 or so. That was because I happened upon a unique bookstore in West Hollywood called the Bodhi Tree. Situated on Melrose Avenue, near La Cienga, the Bodhi Tree housed a most remarkable collection of books on philosophy and eastern religions. It was also one of the only bookstores that had chairs (this was before Barnes and Noble and Borders) and the proprietors didn’t mind if customers sat for a spell and read their books. They even offered you a free cup of tea.
I used to go there almost daily during high school. It was about 20 or so minutes from my house and I have very fond memories of driving over Laurel Canyon from the Valley and making the pilgrimage never quite certain what I would discover. I even took dates there, and on occasion would lose dates there as well, so absorbed I would be with a book or two. Although I didn’t have much money, whatever I did save I spent on books, particularly if something caught my eye. I remember when I was 18 years old and spending 80 dollars for the four-volume leather bound, English translation of the Sikh’s holy scriptures, Guru Granth Sahib, as translated by Gopal Singh. 42 years later I am still a proud owner of it.
Sometimes I would even go to the Bodhi Tree twice a day, such was my addiction to the place. I usually coupled those drives with a lunch at the Source restaurant on Sunset Blvd. (famous for its owner and cult leader, Father Yod) or my favorite one, The Golden Temple Conscious Cookery on 3rd avenue (inspired by Yogi Bhajan, who also happened to be Father Yod’s one-time guru), which featured a wickedly good vegetarian chili.
Sadly the Bodhi Tree, though it became exceedingly popular in the mid-1980s after Shirley MacLaine wrote about it in her reincarnation-tinged tome, Out on a Limb, closed down several years ago. The place still haunts my dreams, as I find myself walking on its creaky wooden floors, looking for buried treasures on its old school bookshelves.
Having been there literally hundreds of times before I reached the age of 19, and before I got more serious in my undergraduate studies, a few literary gems stand out, particularly when I hadn’t known about the book before: The Book of Mirdad by Mikhail Naimy. I think I read that in just one sitting, even resisting a bathroom break. A Search in Secret India by Brunton. I was so enthralled that I ended up writing the author a letter to which he kindly replied, something that I later learned was not his habit. Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi. This gem was something I went back to and read repeatedly. I even read it almost monthly still. But the books that stood out the most for me during those initiatory days were those by the Sufi mystics, Rumi and Hafiz. I read their translated poems over and over again. I became so enthralled with them that I purchased a complete three-volume set of Rumi’s Masnavi, and as a special birthday gift I was given a rare edition (only 500 were printed) of the Divan of Hafiz.
Bodhi Tree was a religious ritual for me and every time I went there I would invariably touch my hand to the wind chimes just inside the entrance. After which I would peruse the new book table and the new magazines on display. Then I would go to my usual haunts in the Eastern Philosophy section and settle in for several hours with a favorite mystic.
The bookstore also attracted a fair number of crackpots and celebrities. One night an older woman tried to hook up with me explaining that she saw an aura around me that indicated that we still had unresolved karma. I had never seen the woman in my life and I somehow managed to deflect the conversation to the current book I was reading at the time (Paul Twitchell’s partly plagiarized but nevertheless enjoyable journey about being out the body called The Tiger’s Fang) then given just the right moment escaped into the bathroom which was adjacent to the office where the owners Stan and …. did their orders. The bathroom always had some beautiful incense lit and which permeated one’s clothes, even hours after leaving, reminding one anew that the typographically charged mistress was awaiting your return.
As for celebrities, I remember sitting near the entrance when a strikingly handsome man came up to me and asked where the Buddhism section was. He was particularly interested in Tibetan Buddhism. Since I knew the bookstore better than I knew my own face, I led him to several books about the Dalai Lama. I learned a few moments later that it was the actor, Richard Gere.
In the early 1970s the bookstore during the week would be relatively empty and I found myself hanging out with the store’s resident cat, a very friendly little fellow. It was so quiet sometimes that I used to have to ring a bell on the counter to get the cashier.
One time when I was there, this older man, looking like he just come from the Newport Beach tennis club, dressed as he was in a pink sweater with a white polo shirt with the collar turned up, and neatly pressed slacks, started talking very loudly and pointing at all the guru pictures that were plastered on the walls in the bookstore. He was carrying on saying that he knew this teacher and that master and this lama, etc. Once when he glanced over at me I immediately recognized him as Timothy Leary, the infamous professor from Harvard who had gotten kicked out along with Richard Albert (aka Ram Dass) for his drug experiments with undergraduates. I didn’t know then that one of the reasons he got booted was because of a young future doctor, Andrew Weil, who wrote an expose’ of sorts about Leary’s and Albert’s activities. Of course, Dr. Weil himself would become famous later for his New Age books on health and diet. Many of Weil’s later books were also featured at the Bodhi Tree.
Since the bookstore was really just an old Hollywood house transformed, it was decided that it needed more space and thus was remodeled, adding a second floor though only workers were allowed there. While it certainly added more space to the place, it lost a bit of its charm in the process. The best thing that happened, however, was when they added a used bookstore in the back of the new store and the parking driveway.
The used book section, though less frequented (some customersto my chagrinnever knew it existed), became my favorite since the prices were very reasonable and could allow me to buy more books.
As much I was loved Bodhi Tree, I ventured out to other bookstores as well, including a few that were in sketchier neighborhoods. One place in particular served me well for finding rare and obscure texts. This was Book City in North Hollywood. Here I found a first edition of Julian P. Johnson’s autobiography, Call of the East, a rare find since only 1000 were printed and it has never been resissued. I also bought his other pseudo-autobiography of his wife, Elizabeth Bruce, entitled The Unquenchable Flame. I say pseudo here because it is purported to be her autobiography even though it was written (without irony) by her new husband, Julian Johnson, who had first met her in India at the Radhasoami center in Dayalbagh, Agra, in the early 1930s.
I also discovered the polemical (yet historically invaluable) books of S.D. Maheshwari, who I would later personally interview with Professor Mark Juergensmeyer at Soami Bagh, Uttar Pradesh, in the summer of 1978.
My love of books took a huge leap forward when I went to get my M.A. in Berkeley and got access to the majestic U.C. Berkeley library with over 10 million volumes. Having graduate privileges, I used to roam the floors for hours. I would spend upwards of 10 hours just getting lost with all the titles, sometimes sitting on the floor lost in enchanted worlds. One time, late in the day in a remote corner, I was startled to see an old man hunched over with a tiny steno like stove making himself lunch, with a large pile of books around him. Apparently, walking down to Telegraph Avenue for food would take too much time away from his precious texts. I asked him how long he was there and he said he came every day as long as he could, sometimes trying to hide after closing hours.
I understood his addiction too well, as once I got so absorbed by Carl Sagan’s, Dragons of Eden, at the Hayward Public Library in the late 1970s that I lost all track of time. I was sitting in a bean chair and as I got up I noticed that nobody was around. I was alone and the lights had been dimmed. As I tried to leave, I noticed that the door was bolted. I was locked inside the library! Thankfully, a custodian came in a few minutes later and provided me with a swift exit.
I loved Berkeley’s numerous bookstores on Telegraph avenue. I would roam from Moe’s to Cody’s to Shambhala. Of course, I had no money so I had to spend most of my time standing and reading, but it was a delight all the same.
Later when I went for my Ph.D. at the University of California, San Diego, I found myself ensconced in the vast spaceship library that jutted from the ground and looked like it was ready for blast off. The only glitch was that the Geisel Library (as it is now named in honor of Theodor Seuss Geisel, who donated a huge sum and who is more well known as “Dr. Seuss”) didn’t have all the books I needed. The UCLA library had a much better collection in philosophy, particularly in Asian studies, so each week I would take the “inter-library” bus up to Los Angeles and hang out at UCLA for six or so hours, making sure to take out at least 20 or so books that I desperately needed. Sometimes the “library” bus was so full of books (since it was the vehicle of choice for inter-library loans) that I would have to sit on a hundred or so books instead of a seat.
While my family is all avid readers, they are not as compulsive as I am about books and their creation. The only friend I knew that understood my addiction and shared my deep love of them was Jeff Cooper, who I first met in high school. He likes to tell the story that whenever we would meet in the bathroom at Notre Dame high school he would invariably check out which books I was currently reading. He distinctly remembered when I carrying around The Tibetan Book of the Dead and The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. Jeff was a connoisseur of how a book was put togetherthe binding, the paper, the dust jacket, and even the smell. My other friend who loved books (but more for the content than for their housing) was Joseph Maria, who always seemed to be on the cutting edge of what was on offer. Joseph was particularly adept at making friends with literary stars. I fondly recall how he became acquainted with Aldous Huxley’s widow, Laura, and used to visit her periodically at her Hollywood Hills home. Joseph was only 16 at the time. He was also a big fan of Krishnamurti.
One of the great highlights of my book collecting happened in the Winter of 1987 when I was awarded an OGSR travel grant to collect rare books on the Sant and Radhasoami tradition in North India. Going to obscure bookstores and ashrams in Delhi was fascinating, especially when I secured a hard to find book.
Though I pride myself on being fairly obsessive about all things book related, I must admit that there are others who make me look quite amateurish in comparison. A master bibliophile is Dr. J. Gordon Melton, founder of the Institute of American Religion, who is currently Distinguished Professor of American Religious History at Baylor University. Professor Melton came to visit me at my office at the University of California, San Diego, where I was teaching in Warren College. This was back in the mid-1980s and I had offered to give Dr. Melton some of my rarer books for his growing collection on new religions at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he had amassed over 31,000 books, pamphlets, and other ephemera during the past twenty or so years. We had just come from dinner with another noted academic, Andrew Rawlinson (well known for his book Book of Enlightened Masters and more recently The Hit) in downtown San Diego and our conversation ranged from Aleister Crowley and occult literature to the Dallas Cowboys football team. When Dr. Melton looked at some of the rare bibliographic items I had on offer and that they were his for the asking, I think I noticed a slight panting in his breath where his level of excitement had to be modified by unconscious yogic pranayama. Simply put, Melton looked like an overly stoked surfer getting ready for an epic session at Snapper Rock in Australia. Books were and are for Melton, as they are for me, magic objects of utter delight.
My obsessive book collecting, however, didn’t go stratospheric until we bought a second home in La Quinta, California. Our Huntington Beach house was simply too small to contain more than a thousand books or so. While it is certainly true that since I got tenured as a Professor of Philosophy back in 1991 that I started buying books at an accelerating rate, I could properly store them and thus they were scattered in my garage and completely maxed out in my renovated office at Mt. San Antonio College where I had to have specially built book shelves to fit the curved walls within the confined space. At one time I even had to rent two storage units to keep the ever-growing library from overflowing into the streets!
Right now is the golden age for bibliomania, particularly since the prices of used books has gotten downright cheap.
The most dramatic change in my collecting habits happened when I discovered that various libraries were opening up used bookshops to garner more income. After the introduction of Amazon’s Kindle in 2007 and Apple’s iPad in 2010, a large number of erstwhile paperback and hardback readers opted for the digital screen. Today the vast majority of my younger students prefer to read off their smart phones or tablets. Thus many people started donating their books to libraries since they had become more or less cumbersome furniture. For the past ten years I have been visiting numerous libraries and finding a vast number of hidden treasures. Right now is the golden age for bibliomania, particularly since the prices of used books has gotten downright cheap.
I guesstimate that I go to bookstores and libraries five times a week, buying on average anywhere from 4 to 12 books on each tripsometimes I hit the mother lode and almost cannot carry out what I have purchased and rarely do I leave empty handed. I have one rule that I follow when I buy a book. I must really want to read it (even if only partially). I simply refused to buy any text that doesn’t in some way interest me. I have a deep fondness for science, so the majority of my library has something to do with quantum theory, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and so on. I also love finding obscure books on Eastern philosophy and religion. My eyes tend to light up whenever I can buy an art book filled with color pictures of Tibetan Buddhist art or the exquisite portraits of Hindu gods and avatars. I almost never buy fiction, with some exceptions for Jorge Borges, Marcel Proust, Somerset Maugham, James Hilton, and my all-time favorite, Leo Tolstoy.
My kids and I suspect that we now have over 17,000 books of various shapes and sizes. The vast majority of these are in five distinct rooms in our house in the desert. My wife teases me that the real reason we bought the second home was not for vocational respite but for a final resting place for all things typographical and pictorial.
Since I have personally selected each book in the library, I feel a sense of intimacy wherever I look, as each title beckons me to spend more time within their seductive covers.
Books are voyages. Books are flights. Books are imaginary worlds. And even if one never leaves the comfort of one’s armchair, a book can immediately transport its reader to unexplored lands and vistas. I find myself traveling daily along unknown routes, hidden byways, and unseen heights. I should be suffering from acute data vertigo but alas I love surfing informational oceans and I have become accustomed to spending huge chunks of time in the cerebral hemispheres, where our consciousness with just a little prodding from algorithmic sequences of 26 letters or patterned numbers can simulate and enliven the most fantastic characters amid wondrous landscapes.
Yes, I am a book addict. But alas I am very contented one, always on the quest, always in search of that untouched horizon.