Introduction to the Fourth Turning of Buddhism
Buddhism has, of all the major religions, always had a very self-reflexive understanding of itself as growing, evolving, unfolding. Nowhere is this better seen than in Buddhism’s own notion of “Three (or Four) Turnings,” the idea that Buddhadharma itself (Buddhist Truth) has gone through three or four major turnings or evolutionary unfoldings, each adding to (but including) the previous turning.
The First Turning was represented by Gautama Buddha himself, the founder of the religion. It came to be expressed most centrally in the Four Noble Truths: 1) Life as we know it is suffering. 2) The cause of suffering is grasping. 3) To end grasping is to end suffering. 4) There is a way to end grasping, namely, the Eight-Fold Way (right view, right intention, right speech, right actions, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentrative awareness).
Such was the essence of Buddhism for some 700 years, until the Buddhist genius‑sage Nagarjuna set forth his writings on Shunyata, typically translated as Emptiness (sometimes Nothingness, or the Plenum/Void). Nagarjuna (c. 200 CE) was increasingly skeptical of this strange dualism between samsara and nirvana (or, essentially equivalent, Form and Emptiness), that was central to Gautama’s teaching, believing rather that ultimate reality had no such dualisms but rather was, to put it somewhat metaphorically, a seamless nondual Whole (seamless, not featureless). The aim, thus, was not to get from one-half of this dualism (samsara) into the other half (nirvana), but to find the seamless Whole (Thatness, Suchness) underlying them. The cause of suffering is not knowing the Real, not knowing Emptiness or Reality in its Suchness, just as it is, free of limiting thoughts and concepts, and that which obscures the Real is drsta, or conceptualizing, qualifying, characterizing. Any concept makes sense only in terms of its opposite—infinite vs. finite, One vs. Many, Form vs. Emptiness, Up vs. Down, Spirit vs. Matter, etc.—and yet Reality has no opposite. In fact, according to Nagarjuna, you cannot say that Reality 1) is, nor 2) is not, 3) nor both, 4) nor neither, and that goes for any concept, any drsta, you can think of. Reality is not 1) infinite, nor 2) not infinite, 3) nor both, 4) nor neither. And so on through any concept, quality, characteristic, or notion you can think of.
Now the point of this fourfold negation—applied across the board—is not just a version of “neti, neti”—”not this, not that”—but to clear the mind from any dualistic thoughts or concepts (vikalpa or “dualistic thinking”) in order to make room for nondualistic awareness (or prajna)—the “jna” in English is “kno”—as in “knowledge”—or “gno”—as in “gnosis”—with “pra” being “pro”—thus, “prajna” is “pro-gnosis,” a nondual form of awareness in which the subject/object dichotomy is transcended—or the self/other dualism is seen through—leaving instead pure, undivided, nondual awareness—although, again, words such as “undivided” or “nondual” are metaphoric at best, since strictly speaking you can’t say this awareness, which is one with Reality, is 1) nondual, nor 2) not nondual, nor 3) both, nor 4) neither.) But the point, metaphorically, is that the dualism between Form and Emptiness, or samsara and nirvana, is mistaken, doesn’t really exist. As the Heart Sutra would summarize this view, “That which is Form is not other than Emptiness, that which is Emptiness is not other than Form,” which also means, “That which is samsara is not other than nirvana, and that which is nirvana is not other than samsara.” The point (again, metaphorically) is that dualities and concepts and qualifications tear the seamless Whole of Reality into torture-inducing, separate slices, and only by overcoming this fragmentation and alienation (via prajna) could a human find Wholeness, peace, freedom, release.
Such a profound notion was Shunyata that this whole approach was called the “Second Turning of the Wheel of Dharma (Truth),” and it marked virtually every subsequent Buddhist school henceforth. Among other things, by seeing that ordinary reality, just as it is, when seen in its Suchness, or Thusness, or Isness, is the same as the liberated state of nirvana, allowed a revolution in Buddhist practice. There is no ontological difference between samsara and nirvana, just an epistemological one—nirvana looked at through drsta is samsara, samsara looked at through nondual awareness is nirvana. Samsara and nirvana are “not-two” or “nondual” (and some schools, such as Zen, to emphasize the real “emptiness” or “nonceptuality” of the Real—and make sure “nondual” isn’t confused with “oneness”—would say they were “not-two, not-one” (which is why the “Wholeness” is metaphoric only; the point is that ultimate Reality can be realized or recognized, but not stated in words, all of which are dualistic and thus misleading).
But (within our metaphorical understanding), this was a profound revolution simply because now ordinary reality is the home of Enlightenment as well—our thoughts, desires, graspings, wishings are all “not-two” with ultimate Reality or Emptiness, and thus we can “bring everything to the path.” This would prove to be the opening to schools of liberation from Tantra to Vajrayana (“Diamond Vehicle,” e.g., Tibetan Buddhism). Such was the Second Turning. And in a crucial move, all of the basics of the First Turning were included—the Second Turning “transcended and included” the First Turning. Various subsequent schools of Buddhism would find ways to include the basic tenets of Gautama’s teachings with those of Nagarjuna’s, thus keeping Buddhism a seamless evolutionary stream. It was said, for example, that Gautama’s teaching on the emptiness of the self simply needed to be complemented with teachings on the emptiness of dharma (thing-events) as well—together, you had the full Emptiness view. So Gautama wasn’t so much denied as supplemented—again, giving Buddhism a very strong sense of evolutionary seamlessness and togetherness, even as new teachings were being introduced.
The very notion of the “not-twoness” of Emptiness and Form opened the door, as we briefly mentioned, to other even “stronger” versions of nonduality or (metaphoric!) Wholeness, one of the most prominent being the Yogachara, introduced by the half‑brothers Asanga (more of a brilliant innovator) and Vasubandhu (more of an acute synthesizer). Another name for their school—Vijnaptimatra—is usually translated as “Mind-only” or “Representation-only.” The point here is that the “not-twoness” of Emptiness and Form allowed some philosopher-sages to come up with other terms for the “Form” that was seamlessly conjoined with ultimate Emptiness or Shunyata, one of them being “Mind” itself. The idea was that “Mind” itself was the same as Emptiness—the Yogachara philosophers were adamant that they were talking about the same “unqualifiable” Emptiness that Nagarjuna was, but by also referring to it as “Mind” they were giving (some would say metaphorically, some would say absolutely) a type of compass that would help relate ultimate Emptiness to an everyday reality everybody was aware of (such as, namely, the Mind). The Zen saying, “The everyday mind, just that is the Tao (ultimate Truth)” is a good example of this type of Yogachara thinking. And it showed clearly how one could “bring everything to the path,” starting with your own, simple, everyday awareness. This opened so many other doors—especially Tantra and Vajrayana—that it is referred to as “The Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma.”
Like many of the previous Buddhist schools, many schools of Buddhism after the Third Turning made explicit moves to integrate the teachings of the Third Turning with those of the previous two Turnings. There is even a school specifically called “the Yogachara‑Svatantrika‑Madhyamika” school of Buddhism that explicitly, as its name implies, attempted to integrate the teachings of Asanga and Vasubandhu with those of Nagarjuna (and, of course, Gauatama). Again, one constantly gets the sense of Buddhism understanding itself as a continually unfolding teaching, but one that “transcended and included” its predecessors, so it is an unbroken, evolving lineage of Buddhist teachings. I am really unaware of any other major religion that so self-consciously seems to have understood itself as a living, evolving, unfolding, but always “including” series of teachings.
(I mentioned that the Yogachara school opened up many other doors to “strong” nondual teachings, including Vajrayana Buddhism and Tantric Buddhism in general. Tantra particularly flourished at the great Nalanda University in India from the 8th to the 11th centuries CE. So profound were these developments that they have sometimes been referred to as a “Fourth Turning of the Wheel.” This is not as widespread an understanding as are the first three Turnings, but they were indeed profound nondual teachings. If we do count them as the Fourth Turning, then this simple introduction would be called “Toward a Fifth Turning,” and the existence of a Fourth Turning already in existence would simply make even stronger my claim that Buddhism has usually seen itself as a continually evolving and unfolding—”transcending and including”—teaching.)
My point can now be put simply. Even counting Vajrayana and Tantra as a Turning, and seeing their initial Nalanda growth phase as ending around the 11th century CE, that still means it has been close to a full millennium since Buddhism has recognized another major Turning. And yet, with items such as the Dalai Lama himself proclaiming that Buddhism needs to keep up with modern science or become obsolete, and—given Buddhism’s seemingly inherent openness to seeing itself as evolving and unfolding—and, finally, given all that we have discovered about the relative workings (if not absolute workings) of the mind in the West over the past millennium, it doesn’t seem grandiose at all to suggest that the time might indeed be ripe for yet another Turning of the Wheel of Dharma. Again, with reference to the Dalai Lama, he has worked so tirelessly on bringing leading Western authorities together with leading Buddhist teachers, looking for ways for both of them to enrich each other—and given the amount of material that Western researchers have unearthed on the mind’s relative workings—from stages of growth, to brain patterns during meditation, to states of consciousness and their functioning, to neurotransmitters and consciousness states, to various typologies of personality types and the different effects meditation has on each—there is a good deal of data and information that directly affects the central notions of Buddhism. Were this material discovered in, say, India during the 8th to 11th centuries CE, it’s hard to imagine that much of it wouldn’t be included in some of the schools of Buddhism. Buddhist thinkers have simply always been too smart, too sharp, too savvy to not include this type of material in their relentless drive to understand the mind and, in doing so, further understand ways to decrease human suffering.
What I will do in this very short introduction (“short” meaning, there is a longer version coming out as an eBook early next year, and soon after, an even larger book being brought out as a regular book, both by Shambhala Publications) is to give a list of three or four items that, in discussion with various Buddhist teachers, seem items that would be of most benefit to Buddhism in a new Turning. Please forgive the shortness of this introductory article; its very brevity makes leaving out much supporting evidence virtually mandatory, so I can only ask that you take an empathetic view here, and simply assume that there is indeed considerable evidence for the items I’m going to present, and then imagine what it would be like to have these as part of a general Buddhist teaching. Traleg Rinpoche and I had done exactly that in a book we were co-authoring tentatively called Integral Buddhism, but his shockingly abrupt passing-over brought that project to an end. It is with Traleg Rinpoche in mind (and, of course, all sentient beings) that I dedicate this work.
1. Structures and States
Based on various types of research (which I’ll briefly explain in a moment), it appears that human beings have at least two very important—but very different—types of spiritual awareness. Forgive the technical terms here, but I think what is involved will become fairly clear. The first type is probably familiar to most: direct spiritual awareness, which involves what are technically called states of consciousness, and which are most often experienced in the practice of meditation or contemplation. For many meditative systems, there are between 3 and 5 major natural states of consciousness, and meditation is basically a systematic training to move through those states, starting at the lowest and densest and ending with the highest and subtlest (and ever-present, just not recognized). Both Vedanta and Vajrayana, for example, have versions of the following 5 states: 1) waking, 2) dreaming, 3) deep sleep, 4) empty or unqualifiable witnessing awareness, and 5) nondual “unity” awareness.
Each of those states of consciousness is said to be supported by a particular “body” (the states are said to be invisible and without simple location—where is “love” or “mutual understanding” located?—but the bodies are actual mass-energy forms running a spectrum from the grossest and densest to the subtlest and finest). These 5 bodies, supporting those 5 natural states of consciousness, are: 1) gross or physical body (Nirmanakaya in Buddhism—”kaya” means “body”), 2) subtle body (Sambhogakaya in Buddhism, 3) causal body (in Vedanta; “very subtle” body in Vajrayana, also called Dharmakaya or “Truth Body”), 4) Svabhavivakaya (in Buddhism, “Integrative Body”), and 5) Vajrakaya (in Buddhism, “Diamond Body”). Even when a system, such as Vedanta or Vajryana is aware of all 5 states and all 5 bodies, it is common for both of them to often just reduce these to 3 or 4, although always ready to draw on all 5 (Buddhism, for example, commonly reduces the bodies to the “trikaya“—the “three bodies”: Nirmanakaya [gross, form, or emanation body], Sambhogakaya [subtle, enjoyment, or transformation body], and Dharmakaya [very subtle or causal, Truth, or Emptiness Body]). Also, even though technically items like subtle body or causal body refer strictly to the body or mass-energy aspect, it is common to refer to the correlative state of consciousness with the same name—thus, gross consciousness, subtle consciousness, very subtle (or causal) consciousness, and so on.
Now the point about these states and bodies is that in most meditative systems, the meditative path itself starts at state 1 and progresses through the other states, in the order given, to state 5, or pure nondual Awakened Awareness. The point is that consciousness has passed through all states in full awareness, and thus achieves a type of “constant consciousness” that is itself the nondual union of Emptiness and Form—Emtpiness (or ultimate Dharma) not-two with all Form (gross form, subtle form, and very subtle form).
Thus, as for passing through the major natural states in that order (e.g., gross, subtle, very subtle, etc.), to give merely one example, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso gives the following 6 stages to Mahamudra meditation (Mahamudra, along with Dzogchen, are taken as some of the very highest of all Buddhist teachings):
- Identifying our own gross mind
- Realizing our gross mind directly
- Identifying our subtle mind
- Realizing our subtle mind directly
- Identifying our very subtle/nondual mind
- Realizing our very subtle/nondual mind directly
(Here, Gyatso uses the standard 3-state/realm summary—Nirmanakaya, Sambhogakaya, and Dharmakaya—or gross, subtle, and very subtle [the Tibetan term for “causal” is “very subtle”—so instead of “gross, subtle, causal,” it’s “gross, subtle, very subtle”]; this 3-state summary implicitly collapses the 4th-state witnessing mind and 5th-state non-dual empty mind—both of which are recognized by the Tibetans, but they often include them in the Dharmakaya or very subtle [or “causal”], which I have therefore summarized as very subtle/nondual. This is simple semantics. The point is that “gross, subtle, causal” is well-recognized by this Tradition, and meditation consists in moving through these states, making each one conscious, and then moving on to the next, “transcending and including” each.)
Thus, this general map of meditation stages comes from the natural states of consciousness all humans have (e.g., waking, dreaming, sleeping, ever-present nondual, etc.). This is probably why so many of world’s meditation systems are essentially so similar. Being biologically based (although not reducible to mere biology), they are the same for humans everywhere—in deep structure form, that is, while their surface features vary from culture to culture (and often within cultures). But, as only one example, Evelyn Underhill, in her classic text on Mysticism, claims all (Western) mystics go through the same basic stages of meditation: often following an initial awakening experience, the stages are: gross purification, subtle illumination, causal dark night (or infinite empty abyss, often followed by depression at losing the state before it becomes permanently realized), and nondual “unity” consciousness. The same basic gross, subtle, causal, nondual states are easily recognized. In fact, I did a book called Integral Psychology, which compared around 100 different developmental systems, about 1/3 of them being meditative systems and about 2/3 being similar to the type of spiritual awareness we will discuss next. What is so amazing about all of them—both types—is the essentially similar nature of them in each type, with similar stages easily recognizable in each (we’ll see this with the second type as well in a moment). In another book I co‑authored (with Jack Engler and Daniel P. Brown), called Transformations of Consciousness, we included a chapter by Harvard theologian John Chirban, who examined a dozen of the early desert Christian contemplatives and, yes indeed, the essentially same stages could be easily recognized (with those being similar to everything from St. Teresa’s Mansions to Zen’s Ox-Herding pictures).
So that is the first point I would like to make. Most schools of Buddhism (and most contemplative schools worldwide) have maps of meditation that are quite similar in deep structures. There are important variations, but there are also many, many important similarities, so much so that this deeply suggests some real and universal realities are involved here. The general stages of meditation, the types of awareness at each stage, and the general characteristics of each stage and the type of “knowledge” it delivers makes this entire area one to be taken with utmost seriousness. Meditation in general is delivering profoundly significant information about the human condition, the universe, and both relative and ultimate Truth.
So that’s the first basic type of spiritual awareness humans seem to have access to—direct immediate experiences, based on states of consciousness, and generally called spiritual experience. The second type (and again, please forgive some of the technical terminology here, but I think it will come out clear) involves something called, not states, but structures of consciousness, and is often referred to as spiritual intelligence. Spiritual intelligence has many different definitions, but the idea generally is that, unlike spiritual experience, which is a 1st-person immediate experiential reality, spiritual intelligence is a 3rd-person, intellectual response to questions like, “What is it that is of ultimate concern to me?” “What is ultimate reality like?” “Who am I?” (1st-person perspective is the person who is speaking, and is generally taken to mean subjective or personal experience; 2nd-person means the person being spoken to—a “you” or “thou”; and 3rd-person means the person or thing being spoken about, and is taken to mean an objective fact or scientific truth.) Saying that spiritual experience is “1st-person” means it is a subjective, immediate personal experience in the awareness of the person—like almost any meditative experience (and “subjective” doesn’t mean unreal; it can mean important truths about the subjective realm, which meditation certainly seems to deliver). On the other hand, saying spiritual intelligence is “3rd-person” means it is not necessarily directly in the awareness of the person, but has been established to likely be present by careful scientific research and experiment, even if it is not in the direct awareness of the person. So most people have a 1st-person experience of speaking English when they do—it’s a direct experience for them; and they usually speak it correctly, using the rules of grammar correctly, even though they can’t write down what the grammar rules are—those rules are 3rd-person elements in their mind, not 1st-person elements, like speaking the language itself is.)
So, spiritual and meditative experiences are 1st-person, direct, immediate, subjective experiences. Spiritual intelligence is a series of structures in the mind that are not themselves directly experienced; they are 3rd-person structures that empirical research has determined people everywhere have—like rules of grammar—even though they are not directly aware of these structures. That’s a basic difference between states of consciousness and structures of consciousness—states can be immediately seen by looking within, structures cannot be seen by looking within but are deduced by scientific experiments on large groups of people over long periods of time.
So you can determine a state of consciousness by simply and directly asking the person what they are thinking or feeling. This is why maps of meditative stages have been around for at least 50,000 years, going back to the original shamans and their voyages to the upper and under worlds. But structures of consciousness are very recent discoveries in human history, being not much more than 100 years old. But they turn out to be very, very important…. (The recentness of structures’ discovery is also why states are found in all meditative systems, but structures are found in none of them—something a new Turning would surely take into account. More on that in a moment.)
One of the places we see structures of consciousness show up conspicuously is in what are generally called multiple intelligences. It used to be thought that a human being has only one or two basic types of intelligence—something like cognitive/logical intelligence and literary/humanistic intelligence—C.P. Snow’s famous “Two Cultures.” But starting with Howard Gardner, of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the notion of “multiple intelligences” has now become quite widely accepted. The number of multiple intelligences, and exactly how to define them, is argued; but the fact that there are up to around a dozen multiple intelligences is uncontested—ones like cognitive intelligence, emotional intelligence, intrapersonal intelligence, moral intelligence, kinesthetic (somatic) intelligence, and spiritual intelligence. All of these are made of structures of consciousness, which means that although people will often use one or more of these intelligences, they can’t tell you the rules of the intelligence or its basic structure, just like they can’t tell you the rules of grammar, even though they are using it. They can’t introspect and see these structures of consciousness, the way they can introspect and see states. But they do have them. And one of them, it turns out, is spiritual intelligence. So this means a type of intelligence about spiritual issues, an intelligence you can’t see by looking within, but an intelligence that you definitely can use and engage to make spiritual decisions. And—just as important—we do have a fair amount of research on this intelligence and the answers that it gives. And that, as they say, is where the story starts to get interesting.
Now, as it turns out, virtually all of these multiple intelligences (which, because they show development, as all structures do, are also called developmental lines or lines of development), even though they are quite different from each other, all grow and develop through the same basic levels of development or developmental levels. So, different developmental lines, same developmental levels. This turns out to be important, because these lines develop at different speeds—they are relatively independent from each other. So you can be very highly developed in some lines (say, cognition and intrapersonal), mediumly developed in other lines (say, moral and emotional), and very poorly developed in yet others (say, somatic and spiritual). An example of somebody with very uneven development might be a Nazi doctor—high level in the cognitive line and very low level in the moral line. The overall average of the developmental levels of the various lines is called the structure center of gravity (just as it turns out that there is a states center of gravity, too, which we’ll get back to).
So, one of the things we have to be careful about is how we name these levels of development. Because all lines go through them, we don’t want to choose names that implicitly favor a few lines and ignore others. As it turns out, it’s actually quite hard to select level names that don’t do that—with up to a dozen developmental lines, almost any name will favor some lines more than others. So some researchers simply number the levels; others use colors. I do both, but it’s also helpful to at times have some names for the levels, even if they are slightly biased, because at least names give some information about the particular level, and don’t just leave people guessing what “#3 level” or “red level” looks like. So with that problem firmly in mind, I’m going to use a variation on the names that a pioneering developmentalist (Jean Gebser) used in exploring worldview lines. These level names—the names of the levels that all the multiple intelligence lines (including spiritual intelligence) grow and develop through—are: Archaic, Magic, Mythic, Rational, Pluralistic, Integral, and Super-Integral (with the occasional mixture, e.g., Magic-Mythic).
My next points can all be put very quickly, and I think you’ll start to get the picture: Each person has—in addition to the capacity to have direct spiritual experiences, as in meditation—a more intellectually-oriented spiritual awareness called spiritual intelligence. This intelligence, like the others, grows and develops through an Archaic level, a Magic level, a Mythic level, a Rational level, a Pluralistic level, an Integral level, and a Super-Integral level. And virtually nobody knows they have this intelligence—they cannot look within and see it, like they can meditative experiences. But this intelligence will govern all the major ideas a person has about spirituality and what it means. Structures, it turns out, are how we interpret states (and all other experiences, for that matter).
So you could be a meditator, and you could be at, say, the causal stage. If your center of gravity is at the structure level of Pluralistic, then you will interpret the experiences of this causal stage in a Pluralistic fashion (we’ll explain more what that means in a moment). If you’re at a Mythic level, you’ll interpret the same causal stage in a Mythic fashion. If you’re Integral, you’ll interpret—and experience—the causal stage in an Integral fashion. And yet none of this will be conscious to you, any more than when you use English, you’ll be aware of the rules of grammar you’re using. So of these two types of spiritual awareness, one of them is virtually completely unaware to you, no matter how advanced you are in states or in meditation. It simply won’t cross your mind, although its results will. The other type—such as meditative experience or states—will be available to your awareness directly, and as you meditate, the whole point is the conscious experiences and understandings of you and your world that you will get at each of the major stages of meditation (e.g., gross, subtle, very subtle, mirror mind, nondual). And, it turns out, this meditative understanding will be directly related to, and molded by, the structure level of development that you are generally at (e.g., Archaic, Magic, Mythic, Rational, Pluralistic, Integral, Super-Integral).
So the first point about a possible Fourth (or Fifth) Turning is that, unknown to humans generally, everybody has up to a dozen types of intelligence that appear to have evolved over the centuries to deal with different fundamental issues and problems (e.g., “Is this real?”—cognitive; “How do I feel about this?”—emotional; “What is the right thing to do in this situation?”—moral; “What is beautiful or attractive to me?”—aesthetic; and so on). These cannot be seen by introspecting or looking within; they are not something we look at, they are something we look through. They are the basic structures that determine how we interpret and experience events, including states. Although the basic stages of meditation, to the extent they are following the major natural states of consciousness, have a general similarity, individuals at different developmental levels will interpret and experience these meditation realities differently (sometimes slightly, sometimes profoundly). There are hundreds of studies on these multiple intelligences, their structures of consciousness, and their levels done in the West (although the West is shockingly free of almost any major, widely known, and widely accepted studies of meditation and meditative states of consciousness, including those claiming to disclose nothing less than ultimate reality; the meditative systems, on the other hand, many of which are thousands of years old, have virtually no studies or maps of these structures of consciousness and their levels of development). It is the lack of these structures and their level-stages in virtually all meditative systems that any major new Turning would want to redress.
To give only one quick example. Let’s say a person in the West, raised in the Christian faith and still a believer, is undertaking contemplative prayer and their state center of gravity is at the subtle stage—the stage of illumination, insight-awareness, and possible feelings of loving‑compassion. Let’s say this person has a dream of a being of light that is radiating loving‑kindness to all beings. If this person’s structure center of gravity is at a Magic stage (which, in addition to my general term, is the actual name of this spiritual stage given it by James Fowler, who, in pioneering works such as Stages of Faith, was one of the first to carefully research these levels of spiritual understanding and brilliantly elucidate how each person’s spiritual intelligence develops through 7 major, universal levels or stages, dramatically changing their spiritual views at each major stage—exactly the point I am making), they will, at this Magic stage: still be fairly egocentric (or narcissistic); they will be primarily concerned with their own safety and self-protection; they may have power-drives and power issues. This person might experience this being of light as being Jesus Christ, but egocentrically, as being loving toward just this one person and this one person alone (if severe, he might even interpret himself as being Jesus Christ—and not his higher or True Self, his ordinary ego). If the person is at the Mythic‑literal stage (as James Fowler’s research also specifically called this stage), they will likely: have expanded their identity from egocentric to sociocentric (or identified not just with their individual ego but with a group—a clan, a tribe, a nation, a religion, etc.—in short, a “chosen peoples”); will be able to take a 2nd-person perspective (or “take the role of other”—hence expand to a group identity); will be very conformist (“my country, right or wrong”; “my religion, right or wrong”); will take every word of the Bible and its myths as being literally true—hence, “Mythic-literal”—and also being nothing less than the word of God (Moses really did part the Red Sea; Mary really was a biological virgin; God really did rain locusts on the Egyptians, etc.); belongingness is a deep need for this person. This individual might experience this being of light as being the savior of his chosen peoples; those who accept this person as their personal savior are destined for Heaven (or a Pure Land), those who don’t are faced with a hellfire future and purgatory. If the person is at the Rational level of development (which Fowler called “individuative‑reflective”), they would: be able to take a 3rd-person perspective (and thus accept modern science as valid and important); treat all people fairly, regardless of race, color, sex, or creed; have a worldcentric (not just ethnocentric or sociocentric) identity; be capable of self‑distancing and self‑critical awareness applied to themselves and their beliefs (hence the “reflective” part of its name). They would likely interpret this being of light, not as the literal son of an anthropomorphic God but as a humanistic world teacher bringing wisdom and insight still of importance for the world today; one of many such world teachers, each of which potentially has something important to teach us; a belief in this being is not necessary for salvation, but some sort of belief and practice is necessary for liberation; other teachers can deliver a comparable salvation as this being, even though this being feels best for this person.
So the same basic meditative experience would be interpreted—and experienced—in quite different ways, depending on the general developmental level of the person having the experience. These interpretive differences (e.g., Magic, Mythic, Rational, etc.) would not be obvious to this contemplative, because you can’t see them if you introspect, unlike the meditative or contemplative experiences you would be having during meditation itself, but they would be having a profound hand in the very nature of how you see and experience a particular meditative or contemplative reality.
Now these three different interpretations and experiences of the same meditative event are not just speculative. There are already entire schools of Buddhism that come essentially from one or the other of those particular three major developmental levels (Magic, Mythic, and Rational).
Melford Spiro in his work Buddhism and Society divided Burmese Theravada into three groups, and they are almost exactly Magic, Mythic, and Rational. The first, which he calls Apotropaic Buddhism, is primarily concerned with protection from evil spirits, using items such as magical charms and incantations. This is pure Magic.
Spiro’s second group he calls Kammatic Buddhism, which is focused on generating merit for a future rebirth. This is a typically Mythic View with some magic elements. There is also the ethnocentric warfare of the Sinhala Buddhists fighting in Sri Lanka. They possess all of Marty and Appleby’s “family resemblances” of mythic-literal fundamentalists—a strong sense of religious identity (a “true believer”), strict social boundaries (us vs. them—a “chosen peoples”), reliance on myth, and so on. Sinhala Buddhists see themselves as “owners and protectors of the Buddhist teachings”; Sri Lanka as the home of the true Dharma; they have control over the purity and right version of the Dharma; and are “ethnic chauvinists” in constant warfare (holy war) with Tamil Hindus, the enemy of truth. This is, indeed, almost pure ethnocentric and absolutistic Mythic stage.
Spiro’s third group he calls Nibbanic Buddhism—they are interested in attaining Nirvana through state-realization as described by Theravada. This Rational Buddhism (including its emphasis on states) was probably the closest thing we have to Gautama Buddha’s original teaching. The Rational nature of Early Buddhism also meant it was not ethnocentric, as Mythic is, but worldcentric (which treats all people—not as being a member of an “in group” versus an “out group”—but equally, regardless of race, color, sex, or creed). Hence, Early Buddhism opened itself to the untouchables, usually excluded from other religions. This was a major factor in Buddhism’s rapid spread through India. And “rational” doesn’t mean it was only rational, but that it had rational capacities; there were few if any myths, gods, goddesses, elemental spirits, and so on (it wasn’t Magical, and it wasn’t Mythic). The texts were quite rational, and pointed to ways to change consciousness through meditative techniques (whose experiences were themselves trans-rational, but whose explanations and guidelines were cleanly rational or reasonable).
So this is already happening—Buddhist state experiences are already being interpreted in profoundly different ways based on general developmental levels. And this is continuing today. One of the most recently emerged developmental levels is, after Rational, the Pluralistic. The Pluralistic View is marked by deep social concern and powerful drives of social justice; is egalitarian and anti-hierarchical; is seriously concerned with environmental and ecological issues; argues for sustainability and renewable energy; downplays any sort of ranking; is anti-patriarchal and anti-war; is profeminist; and is profoundly socially engaged. It is, in other words, the standard form of Buddhism in the Western world. Socially engaged Buddhism is a prime example.
The point is that not only can entire schools be based on essentially the elements of a given level (and not know it), but individuals can themselves have the same thing happen, in one of two major ways: they can be at a given developmental level (say, Pluralistic), and experience the entire sequence of meditative stages (e.g., gross, subtle, very subtle, nondual), all the way to Enlightenment, but each interpreted from the Pluralistic level; or they can progress through the levels of development at the same time they are progressing through the meditative stages (and in any number of combinations, such as starting the gross stage at Mythic; experiencing the subtle and very subtle stages at Rational; interpreting the witnessing mirror mind at Pluralistic; and the nondual stage at Integral—or virtually any other combination). But the point is that, they won’t be aware of these structure-interpretations because, again, structures can’t be seen by introspecting, only their results.
Once you become aware of the vast literature on developmental levels (and in the many different lines), you can fairly easily spot when a meditation teacher is coming from a particular level. This gives various teachers sometimes slight, sometimes significantly different views of Buddhadharma, just as the above-mentioned schools of Buddhism have actually quite different versions of Dharma based on developmental levels. The concern, of course, is that many of the greatest Buddhist texts are coming from at least an Integral level of development (and a nondual state level), but they are being interpreted by teachers at considerably lower levels, simply because these levels can’t be spotted unless you actually study various maps of that developmental territory. And thus any truly comprehensive meditative system would want to be aware of this double development—development occurring in states and development occurring in structures—and thus include both states of consciousness and structures of consciousness in their teachings—the states being how we WAKE UP, and the structures being how we GROW UP. Both, needless to say, are profoundly important.
The addition of structures and their stage-levels is one of the most important items that a new Turning would include, in my opinion, simply because of the profound (and usually completely unknown) impact it has on so many aspects of reality and its experience—and aspects that Buddhism has traditionally shown an exceptional interest in—and thus I have spent by far the largest amount of time in this intro on that topic. Many of the other items are as, or nearly as, important, but I will simply give a very short mention of them, leaving a fuller discussion to be found in the other works I mentioned (as well as my Integral Spirituality, which covers many of these topics in detail).
2. Shadow Work
Roger Walsh, M.D., PhD, is a psychiatrist, philosopher, and Buddhist teacher. He recently told me that in the meditation retreats in which he has participated, of the questions he is asked by meditators during their meeting sessions, approximately 80% of his responses are psychotherapeutic in nature, and 20% are directly meditative. And neither Buddhism, nor any other of the great meditative systems, have hardly any teachings on the nature of the repressed unconscious and its “shadow” material. There is much very useful information on the afflictive emotions, how to handle dysfunctional states, what we would today call “positive psychology,” and so on. But as for material that is explicitly forced out of consciousness and into unconscious areas of the mind, from there to be displaced, denied, projected, or otherwise repressed—leaving in their place painful neurotic symptoms—we have very little. And meditation does not necessarily access this material, although in some cases it can certainly help. But it can also make matters worse as well. Many neurotic symptoms come from a dis-owning and dis‑identifying with unwanted impulses or desires; yet much of meditation is a type of “dis‑identifying” or letting go of personal identity, and if that attitude is taken directly with material that has already been dis-owned, the result will only make matters worse, and the dis‑owned material is further dis-owned. This material must first be re‑owned, then integrated with the psyche, and then—and only then—let go of, dis‑identified with.
But of this type of action, we find little in the meditation literature. A few simple psychotherapeutic techniques—such as identifying repressed material, re-owning it, integrating it, then letting it go—would help to handle that nearly 80% of the problems that seem to arise during meditation. But until then, the only advice most meditation teachers have for their students is, “Intensify your efforts!,” exactly what is not needed.
3. Meta-theory of Spiritual and Scientific
The Magic and Mythic levels of spiritual development all deny the importance or even existence of scientific theories and ideas. The Rational and higher levels are all open to scientific notions, but not always in the sanest or best ways. The religion of the future, it is clear, will be on friendly terms with science, as the Dalai Lama has emphasized, and thus a decent “meta-theory” of the relation of science and spirituality is a good item to include. Unlike structures, which can be directly, empirically, and “scientifically” investigated among groups of people, this type of meta-theory is merely speculative and philosophical, but there are a few items that can be highlighted in general.
The first is perhaps the over-zealous use of some (often quite weird) views of Quantum Mechanics to effect a marriage of science and spirituality. The main problem here is the nature of the interpretation that productions like What the Bleep Do We Know? offer. The central issue is what is known as “the collapse of the wave packet” or the “measurement issue.” This refers to the Schroedinger wave equation, which is used to determine the location of sub‑atomic particles. The problem is that, until the particle is actually measured, the wave equation won’t let you say whether the particle exists or not; some interpretations (although very few by most physicists) therefore suggest that it is the measurement itself that brings the particle into existence. This is made to order for mystical speculation if ever a notion was. Most physicists (such as David Bohm) believe that the simple fact that you can’t say if the particle exists or not doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, just that you don’t yet know its location. But many popularizers (e.g., Fred Allan Wolf) maintain, not even that measurement brings the particle into existence, but that your own consciousness brings it into existence (“qwaffs” it into existence, as he puts it). So if you look at an ashtray, he maintains, you are actually bringing that ashtray into existence, just like all the world’s mystical traditions claim. But what they claim is that the One Self/One Spirit spontaneously manifests all existence, not that your awareness alone does so. If you and I are looking at the ashtray, which one of us is doing the qwaffing? And if I walk into the room and the ashtray is already there, does that mean somebody was there before me and qwaffed it in? If you’re looking at it, and I start looking at it, too, why don’t we get two ashtrays? I’m afraid the Quantum Mechanical elements are simply made to order for a Me Generation convinced its own ego brings everything into being.
Much more believable are spiritual theorists who, like Michael Dowd, believe that one can see in the miracles of evolution an Eros, or Spirit-in-action, that is indeed miraculous. One thing for sure about evolution is that, as the Intelligent Design folks have aptly pointed out, it cries out for a spiritual explanation (though not for one taken only from the Bible). To get one species from another requires several mutations. It’s well‑known that the vast majority of mutations are lethal, so we would have to have several extremely unlikely mutations all occurring at once in the same animal. But even more unbelievable, the exact same number and type of mutations would have to occur in another animal of the opposite sex, in order for them to procreate and pass on the new mutations. And even more unbelievable yet, these two would have to find each other—what if one is in Siberia and the other in Mexico? The odds of all of those happening is basically zero. At the very least, as people like Stuart Kaufman have suggested, there is a fifth force in the universe (in addition to strong and weak nuclear, electromagnetic, and gravitational), something like a drive to self-organization (in other words, an Eros) that is actively winding the universe up. That would at least give the likelihood of the emergence of new and higher levels of complexity a fighting chance.
My own meta-theory includes items such as, in addition to Eros, something called “the four quadrants.” All that means is that any phenomenon can be looked at from both the inside and the outside, as well as in singular and plural (or individual and collective) forms—putting these together gives us 4 major perspectives or dimensions that every event has: the inside and the outside of the individual and the collective. The inside of the individual is a subjective view, an “I” space; the outside of an individual is an objective view, a “scientific” view (an “it” space). The inside of a collective is culture, or the shared values, meanings, language, ethics, and so on shared by any group (a “we” space); the outside of that group is how that group looks in an objective, “scientific” fashion (its money system, its economic system, its legal forms, its ecological surroundings, its birth and death rates, etc.; an “its” space). This is similar to the Good (we space), the True (objective truth, the two “it” spaces), and the Beautiful (the beauty in the “I” of the beholder). Or Buddha, Dharma, Sangha—I space, it space (Thusness, Itness), and we space.
The claim is that these 3 or 4 spaces emerge together, exist together, evolve together, decease together—that they are, in fact, simply 3 or 4 views or perspectives of the same thing. Thus, where the outside of the individual view (the “it” space) gives us the objective body, the brain and its neurotransmitters, various brainwave patterns, and so on, the inside of the individual gives us various experiential states of consciousness, meditative states, consciousness states, and so on—or brain and mind. Collective brains exist in particular geographical locations—families, towns, cities, states, nations; and collective minds come together in values groups, educational systems, belief systems (various sciences to various religions), and so forth. None of these can exist without the others, and thus, for example, the causal state of consciousness (in the “I” space) corresponds with a delta brainwave pattern (in the “it” space), and if a person is meditating with their local group, they come together in a particular location and their meditation system has a collective set of beliefs, practices, and ideas. The inside or interior or subjective spaces are particularly those covered by things like psychology, spirituality, morals, values, and so on; and the outside or exterior or objective spaces are particularly ones covered by things like individual sciences, environmental or ecological sciences, techno-economic modes of being (foraging, farming, industrial, informational), and so forth. The point is that there is not only room, but a demand, for both science and spirituality in every event (and this certainly includes an ongoing integration of the rapidly growing sciences of neuro-functioning and brain physiology with studies in psychology and meditative development. A meta-theory of the relation of science and spirituality isn’t just an idea of how to do so, but to also actually do so).
But whatever meta-theory one adopts, it is clear that any religion of the future will have to have, as part of its dharma, dogma, gospel, or teachings a formal statement on the relation of science and spirituality, and thus a meta-theory of one sort or another would be a likely item in any new Turning.
The idea, it would seem, is to keep the number of new elements actually included in any new Turning to an absolute minimum. The three items above are at the top of my list for additions, but there are others which at least deserve consideration. Extremely briefly, they are:
—“We” practices—A popular saying is that the next Buddha will be the Sangha. There are an increasing number of groups who take this very seriously, and not only practice together, as is common now, but are pioneering the exploration of actual “we” experiences—or shared experiences—at each of the higher stages of meditative development (e.g., gross, subtle, causal, etc.). As each stage of meditation shows us a higher consciousness (or “I” space), what is the corresponding “we” space of such higher “I’s” brought together?
—Integral Semiotics—Most spiritual systems have trouble being more widely accepted because the reality of what they claim exists (e.g., enlightened mind, satori, jnana samadhi, nirodh) is not believed. And that happens because we have a general understanding that the referent (or actual object) of a signifier (word or sign representing the referent) has to be in the sensorimotor or material world, or it’s not really real. Thus, a “dog” is real, but a “black near‑attainment” is just a fantasy. And we have that confused notion because we don’t understand that different referents actually exist in different worldspaces—there are, for example, different phenomena in the gross realm, the subtle realm, and the causal realm. Those phenomena that are real in the subtle and causal cannot be seen in the gross physical. You have to actually get in the subtle or causal in order to see or experience the objects that are located there. Thus, “black near-attainment” is a real reality in the causal (or very subtle) state, and can be experienced by anybody who reaches that state in awareness. Thus, all referents exist in particular worldspaces or state‑worlds, and you have to get in those worlds to see those objects. If Buddhism (and all other spiritual systems) were to keep track of the different realms and their different phenomena with a systematic clarity, we could start identifying what is real and what is fantasy with much greater precision.
—The “1-2-3” of Spirit—Spirit can be experienced in 1st-person, 2nd-person, and 3rd-person modes (“1st-person” is the person speaking, an “I”; “2nd-person” is the person being spoken to, a “you” or “thou”; “3rd-person” is the person or thing being spoken about, a “him,” “her,” or objective “it”). Spirit in 1st-person is one’s True no-self Self. Spirit in 2nd-person is Spirit as a “Great Thou” or “Great Other”; or, alternatively, Spirit as the mind of one’s guru. And Spirit in 3rd-person is Spirit as an objective all-inclusive reality, a “Great Web of Life”; or, alternatively, Spirit in its Thusness, Suchness, or Isness (“itness”). All three of those are real and true; yet religions have fought wars over which one of these is true. Seeing that all of them are true—which Buddhism generally does—but making it clear and official would head off that argument before it starts.
Other items, such as other typologies, specific connections with all of the different human disciplines (e.g., Buddhism and law, Buddhism and medicine, Buddhism and business, Buddhism and leadership) will become increasingly demanding of any religion of the future, and ought to be encouraged starting now.
Those are some of the items that any new Turning of the Wheel of Dharma might want to seriously consider. Buddhism has been one of the most adaptable religions in history, fitting into a profoundly different number of cultures and societies. There is one culture it faces now—the culture of the future—that a new Turning would better equip it to handle.
Other pieces in this series
About Ken Wilber
Ken Wilber is a preeminent scholar of the Integral stage of human development. He is an internationally acknowledged leader, founder of Integral Institute, and co-founder of Integral Life. Ken is the originator of arguably the first truly comprehensive or integrative world philosophy, aptly named “Integral Theory”.