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

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Giorgio Piacenza Giorgio Piacenza is a sociologist student in the Certificate program leading to a Master's degree in Integral Theory at JFK University.



Giorgio Piacenza Cabrera

Ken Wilber's "Integral Theory" seems to favor the postmodern-compatible, pro-Madhyamaka (of the variety mostly understood as 'no essence') Buddhist doctrine. Nevertheless, another Buddhist doctrine (also claiming to represent Buddha's original teachings) is more compatible with several important non dual, esoteric metaphysics accompanying the contemplative aspects of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Vedanta. These other non dual understandings are already being referred to by Ken Wilber and by other Integral Theorists. Yet, unlike the kind of Madhyamaka doctrine preferred and incorporated by Ken Wilber, all of them are 'essentialist' like another kind of 'Madhyamaka', the Maha Madhyamaka of the Jonang Tibetan Buddhist monks. By opening Integral Theory to this essentialist 'Jonangpa' Buddhism, a truly inclusive, religious, conceptual and spiritual debate, as well as a higher integrative understanding could arise in relation to a shared mystical, esoteric and genuinely "Integral," timeless (and stageless) wisdom. So, what is 'essentially' missing in Integral Theory?

In spite of the 'mythic stage', exoteric understanding of God, there was an esoteric understanding of God that can be seen as NEITHER post post modern NOR pre-modern. It derives from a combination of spiritual reason (a higher spiritually perceptive reason-intellect, a la Buddhi) and of careful, logical rationality and -influenced by ancient Greek philosophers- was being developed in Medieval times by -for instance- also considering inputs from Platonism and Aristotelianism. This happened among unique mystical theological thinkers in Judaism, Christianism and Islam around that period, now simplistically understood by many "integralists" as "MYTHIC".

I think that Integral Theory (following Ken Wilber's orienting preferences) is doing a serious disservice to the possibility of a truly Integral and more advanced and trans-stage, Source-based form of integration by minimizing or ignoring the high level of mystical-speculative knowledge about God that was being developed -for instance- in the Middle Ages, even alongside the 'Bearded Man in the Sky', exoteric and 'mythic' kinds of representations. This grave error needs to be corrected because, in relation to this "principial" and real metaphysical knowledge, there's been deterioration, not an evolution. Both Hume and Kant -while elucidating some important philosophical aspects- already spoke with the sentiment and vision of moderns, already out of touch with the "principial" metaphysical philosophical awareness illuminating reason.

In relation to a Buddhist preference associated to post modern and (supposedly) post post modern sentiments, the preference lies on the conundrum of understanding the dharma as revealing that there's NO ESSENCE. Nevertheless, there still survives a (once considered heretical and once politically persecuted and suppressed, centuries old "Buddhist alternative school), the JONANGPA or Maha Madhyamaka of the Zhentong doctrine (whose monks are extreme experts on the Kalachacra and now also sought after by the current Dalai Lama) which affirms that all phenomena are empty of essence EXCEPT Essence itself. While still maintaining some distinct understandings, the -so called- 'Dharma Kaya' and 'Tathagatagarbha' are Absolute Essence, as in the esoteric, mystical, Semitic theologies and as in Vedanta. In other words, this particular Buddhist view is more compatible with (the also ultimately non dual) mystical 'theologies' of Vedanta, Catholicism, Judaism and Islam. See: Jonangpa Buddhism.

Integral Theorists capable of thinking beyond their normal postmodern academic context and cultural ethos would find more ways to 'integrate' all of these Non Dual and essentialist wisdoms only after being able to overcome their contemporary Postmodern sentiments along with their irrational preferences. The key is to return to this essential and "principial" wisdom that is the shared esoteric 'Sophia Perennis' whose emergence has briefly come to the attention of a few in different cultural times, a 'Sophia Perennis' which (in spite of the anti evolution leanings of many of its proclaimers) offers integrating keys that surpass the (more obvious) pre-modern, modern and post modern stages of exoteric cultural development. I sincerely consider that a mature Integral Theory will incorporate this 'Essence' (and essentialist modeling) into its approximate modeling, along with a shared, renewed and profound sense of the Sacred also found in that positive “Essence” that can also reveal itself and/or be understood under various all- encompassing qualities and similar ethical guidelines.


Regarding the previous essay, I'm adding some comments here as I was made aware that -while being critical of Ken's current Integral Theory- I may have emphasized too much on an observation without sufficiently reporting on its counterbalances:

Yes, perhaps my writing was not clear or inclusive enough. I apologize if I forgot to mention ideas that Ken does indeed also consider and include in his writings. What I said that was 'missing' related to his lack of emphasis, rather than to a complete lack of acknowledgement. In truth and generally speaking in constructing Integral Theory, Ken Wilber also makes use of the word 'Spirit' and of various Buddhist concepts such as (the more "essentialist"-related) "Buddha Nature."  Thus, he is not exclusively using a 'Rangtong' position for the entire theoretical structure or for Integral Life Practice and psychology. I overstated my position because Ken also relates to Gelugpa, Zen, Tantric and Dzogchen ideas and makes use of Vedanta. He converses with contemplative Christians and Jews and -moreover- I commend that he is seeking to integrate these views as variations on what is understood as 'non dual' awareness. Whether he has successfully done so or has successfully proposed how to do so is another matter.   

I didn't mention these matters more carefully in the previous essay. I wanted to propose that there's a link between Ken's seemingly unacknowledged postmodern bias and the variety of Madhyamaka used more often at the expense of subtler forms. It is a variety apparently denying any essence even if 'Absolute' (and semi mistakenly and often controversially criticized as 'nihilist'). This occurs at the expense of another more subtle kind of Madhyamaka which could help integral theorists in the dialogue with the previously mentioned essentialist positions rather than giving the (non explicit) impression that Integral Theory as 'Integral Post Metaphysics' is backed by all of Mahayana Buddhism.  

I do think that more sophisticated forms of understanding of the Buddhist teachings like 'Zhentong' of the Jonang Monks and other such legitimate understandings that build upon ideas like the "Buddha-Dhatu" (Buddha-Nature), the "Tathagatagarbha" (Buddha Matrix) and upon texts like the "Nirvana Sutra," could better reflect a common non dual experiential ground more (universally) applicable to Middle Eastern, Christian and Indian Vedanta mysticism. Emotionally attached postmoderns and their relativism excessively influencing emerging integral theorists shouldn't find an ideological ally in a partial or partialized understanding of Buddhism and what Buddhism can still potentially offer to the world. Perhaps in the future more Buddhist opinion leaders will find creative and doctrinally adequate ways to integrate theory and practice with a universal and essentialist position.

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