A king once told his prime minister, who was also his good friend: "I see in the stars that everyone who eats from this year's grain harvest is going to go mad. What do you think we should do?"
The prime minister suggested they should put aside a stock of good grain so they would not have to eat from the tainted grain.
"But it will be impossible to set aside enough good grain for everyone," the king objected. "And if we put away a stock for just the two of us, we will be the only ones who will be sane. Everyone else will be mad, and they will look at us and think that we are the mad ones. No, we too will have to eat from this year's grain. But we will both put a sign on our heads. I will look at your forehead, and you will look at mine. And when we see the sign, at least we will remember that we are mad."
--Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, Sipurim Niflaim (Wondrous Tales)
"So, you see, deep down, mental development takes time. If someone says, 'Oh, through many years of hardship I have changed,' I can take that seriously. There's a greater likelihood of the changes being genuine and long-lasting. If someone says, 'Oh, within a short period, say two years, there has been a big change,' I think that is unrealistic."
--The Dalai Lama on authentic spiritual development from The Art of Happiness
"Truth is the gateway to Redemption."
-- Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav
I have often wondered how astrology, which arose in the Northern Hemisphere and is based on the seasonal changes that occur there, applies here Down Under. It seems that it does, however, because despite the balmy hot summer weather here, for the past few weeks I have experienced a period of introspection characteristic of the dark winter period that precedes the winter solstice.
As part of that introspection, I had a long overdue read of The Art of Happiness, co-authored by the Dalai Lama and the American psychiatrist Howard C. Cutler. While I would not consider this book exceptional, it portrays many insights into the Dalai Lama as a person. It is always inspirational to come into contact with the humanity of this great man who calls himself "a simple Buddhist monk". His wisdom, compassion and humour-- the hallmark of all great mystics—are unflagging. Furthermore, as Cutler comments, whether in private or public, the Dalai Lama is always truthful in expressing his limitations. He denies being a miracle worker and will not infrequently respond with the words, "I don't know."
I believe that during this literary project, in which Cutler hoped to come away with some quick pointers for the attainment of happiness, the author was also confronted with limitations in that regard, for he writes: "When I initially conceived this book, I envisioned a conventional self-help format in which the Dalai Lama would present clear and simple solutions to all of life's problems. I felt that, using my background in psychiatry, I could codify his views in a set of easy instructions on how to conduct one's daily life. By the end of our series of meetings, I had given up on that idea. I found that his approach encompassed a much broader and more complex paradigm, incorporating all the nuance, richness and complexity that life has to offer."
Concurrent to revisiting the applicability of Tibetan Buddhism to Westerners, I have also been giving a lot of thought to the evolution of kabbalah, which, contrary to its past history as a concealed esoteric tradition, has now entered—for better or for worse—the public domain.
In Ken Wilber's latest work Integral Spirituality he lists Kabbalah along with TM, Zen and Big Mind Meditation as a core Spirit module in his chart on Integral Life Practice. Quite frankly, I was a bit bewildered by that inclusion. What exactly did he mean by "kabbalah" in the context of an ILP for integral post-moderns?
It certainly did not refer to kabbalah as it is studied in orthodox academies like the prestigious Beit El in Jerusalem. Despite the utilisation of the Ari's mystical kavvanot (intentions) in prayer and the intense study of Lurianic kabbalah, one would be hard-pressed to define the perspective of its students as integral. Rather, in that context the mystical knowledge acts as a support for the pre-modern traditions of religious Judaism. As such, despite their apparent engagement with radical theological concepts, these students would be obliged to maintain an ethnocentric rather than a planetary perspective (which is the starting point for integral consciousness).
Of greater concern was the possibility that many Wilber readers might interpret this listing as an endorsement of the Kabbalah Centre, which, due to its commercial success, in the minds of many Westerners had become synonymous with kabbalah itself. There are a number of reasons, however, a few of which are listed below, why I believe such an interpretation would run counter to the author's intent:
- The Centre's obsession with the supernatural—red threads, blessed water, scanning (as opposed to studying) the Zohar—hails from the pre-modern, pre-rational domain rather than the post-modern, trans-rational (i.e. transpersonal) vantage point where an integral perspective becomes possible.
- The Centre's website claim that its kabbalah is science as opposed to mysticism is problematic. Though indeed kabbalah fits the dictionary definition as 'a department of systematised knowledge through study or practice', it can by no means be considered 'a natural science' (the colloquial understanding of this term) which discovers empirical truths using scientific method. Wilber details extensively the pre-modern suppression of art and science by the Church; the positive feature of modernity is the distinctive emergence of these two domains outside the sphere of religion. In effect, by its ambiguous claim to be 'a science', the Kabbalah Centre is reversing that great leap. Kabbalah has much to offer the human spirit, but you can delve into it endlessly and you will never find the laws of thermodynamics, relativity or quantum mechanics or any other feature of objective scientific thought. Nor did any kabbalist of the past make such a spurious claim. The essence of an integral consciousness is the ability to recognise the different
perspectives of each domain and
to integrate them as such.
- The revival of the notion of the Evil Eye not only reverts to medieval superstition but to a type of dualism that is far from the Oneness aspired to in Integral Theory. The late Klausenberg Rebbe, R Yekutiel Yehuda Halberstam, one of the superior mystical personalities of contemporary Judaism, claimed that the very existence of an Evil Eye was dependent on the belief in it!
- In mentioning references for the study of an integral kabbalah, Wilber records only two: Professor Moshe Idel of Hebrew University, a scholar of Jewish mysticism as opposed to a practitioner, and Rabbi Zalman Schachter, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement in the U.S. (For those who are unfamiliar with Jewish Renewal, its hallmark features are egalitarianism, eclecticism and a renewal of syncretic meditative practices reworked into Jewish contexts. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_Renewal). Wilber makes no mention at all of Philip Berg or his sons.
This exclusion is not meant to imply that the Kabbalah Centre is not effective in providing people with a valuable and necessary service. Berg has succeeded extraordinarily in taking the basic contours R Yehuda Ashlag's kabbalah and grafting it onto a simple, how-to, quick fix framework that has certainly changed numerous lives for the better. Its effectiveness, however, is not a gauge of its integral capacity. For some people, the ritual of going to church can also be effective in bringing inner peace to their lives, but this in itself is no guarantee of attaining integral awareness.
Through the Zohar in the Hills Facebook group I have had lots of contacts with different students from the Centre; not too long ago I also had a conversation with one of the Centre's teachers. This dialogue involved not the question of whether the kabbalah taught at the KC was integral, but rather whether it could be considered kabbalah at all!
A video clip on the KC website brought to my attention prompted this interchange. In this video, the claim was made that the Zohar never referred to the Torah's commandments or prohibitions but rather to "positive and negative energies". This was very difficult to comprehend. Anyone who has actually studied the Zohar knows that the words "פקודיא" ("commandments") and "אסוריא" ("prohibitions") appear frequently in the Zohar, particularly in the Raya Meheimna section which elucidates the mystical essence of various Torah laws. In the time of the Zohar the jargon of "positive and negative energies" was unheard of. It seemed as if, for whatever reasons, the Kabbalah Centre was engaged in a campaign, deliberate or not, to extricate the kabbalah from its authentic Jewish roots.
This was reinforced in the FAQ section where the claim was made that kabbalah has not only been the province of Jewish mystics but of many Christians as well, including "Knorr-von-Rosenroth [sic], Pico della [sic] and Sir Isaac Newton". This is offered as proof of kabbalah's universal applicability. What is not mentioned there, but what scholar Gershom Scholem discusses at some length in his works, is the unanimous opposition by Jewish kabbalists to the theological conclusions meant to justify a specifically Christian agenda reached by these non-Jewish mystical thinkers.
I tried to analyse what bothered me about these distortions. After all, I was also in favour of the dissemination of kabbalah wisdom to Jews and non-Jews alike. What did it matter if there was a bit of whitewashing to justify the same conclusion I also believe in? In thinking it over, I came up with a kind of weird yet apt metaphor that depicted my feelings. I imagined myself sitting in a café and drinking a glass of Coca-Cola (remember this is metaphor; not real life!). A tourist couple from a remote region in Mongolia, who have never tasted Coke before, sit down at the next table and excitedly order their maiden drink of this unique substance. For some unknown reason, perhaps a misunderstanding or a prejudice against Mongolian tourists, the smiling waiter appears with two bottles of Sprite! The two unsuspecting Mongolians, raising their glasses in my direction in the gesture of a toast, happily drink the beverage they have been given, all along thinking it's 'the real thing'. I warily smile back from the next table, wondering whether or not I should bother myself to go over and try and point out that it was not Coca-Cola they were drinking.
Although, in real life, like most people, I would probably just mind my own business, this once I decided to get out of my chair and blast the clarion call of 'truth' in defence of these hapless tourists. I wrote a lengthy letter to one of the teachers at the Kabbalah Centre in LA expressing my concerns as detailed above. To my pleasant surprise, he not only answered my message but arranged a time to call me from the States. On the phone, we must have discussed the issues for nearly half-an-hour. He was very kind, candid and altruistic in his sincere belief that the format of kabbalah developed by the Centre had the potential to transform the world. Yet, after half an hour, I was no closer to resolving my internal conflict than I was beforehand. In fact, and this is something I have experienced in correspondence with students of the KC, it was as if we were talking two completely different languages. Despite the best intentions and goodwill between us, it was impossible to achieve a resolution.
After he had hung up, I felt really stupid, as stupid as I would have felt in real life if I had actually left my table at the café and gone over to convince the Mongolians (who, incidentally, also don't speak English) that the drink they were enjoying so much was not Coca-Cola.
Why did I have to be so pedantic? What did it matter whether or not their kabbalah was authentic, so long as everyone was enjoying the drink? And then, jumping out of the metaphor, another more frightening thought hit me. What gave me the chutzpah to think that my drink, my version of 'kabbalah', was the real thing? That version was also adulterated with additives like Integral Theory, Sufism, Taoism, Buddhism, quantum physics and a host of other outside influences. From the perspective of the student sitting in Beit El, I was no less of a meshuggah (crazy) and a heretic than Berg was!
So, is there, after all, a kabbalah that fits into Ken Wilber's Integral Life Practice? Perhaps we have to look at Wilber's recommendations for role models to find these answers. In including Professor Idel, Wilber seems to be suggesting that a critical, objective and rational approach to Jewish mysticism is also a prerequisite to an integral one. While it may be convenient for some to believe, for example, that the Zohar is an ancient work authored by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (the view curiously held both in orthodox circles and the Kabbalah Centre), this contradicts all scholarly historical and philological research on the subject. Does it mean that the Zohar is of less value or less holy because of its historical origins in 13th century Castile? To me, it does not; as much as my belief that the universe is billions of years old does not undo my appreciation for the description of creation in Genesis. The two are different perspectives that, when integrated, only enhance one another.
In citing Rabbi Zalman Schachter as the role-model for the practicing aspect of an integral kabbalah, it seems that Wilber was directing his remarks to non-Hebrew speakers living outside of Israel. At this juncture, Jewish Renewal, like Integral Spirituality itself, is almost exclusively an American phenomenon. In Israel, where fluency in Hebrew allows more accessibility to the full range of knowledge in kabbalah, a grassroots, eclectic mysticism-- that includes both religious and secular-- has been flourishing for a number of years. Known by the acronym of HaBaKuk, after the prophet of the same name, it combines the teachings of Habad, Bratslav, the late Rav Kook as well as a syncretism of some Eastern traditions. Yet, as is the case with Jewish Renewal, there is no clear, monolithic structure; it is rather an amorphous blend of teachings which affords individuals to connect in the manner suitable to their personal perspectives and needs.
For those who have chosen to explore the pathways of Jewish mysticism, it is vital to bear in mind that "kabbalah" itself is by no means a clear, monolithic structure. (It is because of this that Wikipedia cannot even offer a concise definition of what it is!) From its distant origins in antiquity, to the Gnostic trends of the Merkavah, to the Pythagorean influences in Sefer Yetzirah, to the Neoplatonic trends surfacing in Provence and Gerona, to the antinomian views of Abulafia, to the anti-Maimonidean stance of the Zohar, to the radical theology of the Ari (of which several versions are extant!) kabbalah is a vast catchword that has meant many different things to many different people.
In Ken Wilber's various works on Integral Theory, a point that he repeatedly makes is that the system he presents is merely a map of reality. At some point one must put the map down and see whether or not it matches the actual terrain—the plane of our everyday existence. The same can be said about Kabbalah, Buddhism, Sufism or any other spiritual map that attempts to depict the reality of life. Its effectiveness can only be determined when we put it aside and experience the actual territory. In the end, our Mongolian tourists will not get very far and will see very little of the town, if their heads are always stuck in the map! It is marvellous to discuss the supernal worlds, tsimtsum, shverit ha-kelim, the Sefirot, the 32 paths, the Divine names and the Partzufim; the value of these discussions, however, is determined in the end by how these concepts assist our participation on the playing field of real life with all of its "nuance, richness and complexity".
So, am I ready to abandon my search for the integral map, knowing that, as good as it gets, it can never be 'the real thing'? Not at all! Personally, the fact that there is ultimately no simple, clear answer does not discourage me. It is only an indication of coming closer to Truth, the ineffable, ever-present Ultimate Reality of Ain Sof, of which we cannot even speak.
Does that conviction to plod on in spite of this knowledge classify me as a meshuggah?
I suppose it does; but, no worries, mate! At least I've got a sign on my forehead.