Wilber on Translation and Transformation

Wilber's One Taste, which contains a series of journal entries edited for public consumption, contains a reflection on "transformation" and its relation with what he calls "translation" (One Taste, pp. 26-37). The journal entry is reprinted online as "A Spirituality that Transforms," and the core of the entry, a discussion of the distinction between transformation and translation, can be found in The Essential Ken Wilber.

In his journal entry, Wilber takes as his jumping-off point certain comments made by Hal Blacker in What is Enlightenment? Blacker refers to the "superficiality which pervades so much of current spiritual exploration in the West," noting that in the "translation of the mystical traditions, their radical demand is diluted." As he puts it "the roar of the fire of liberation is transmuted into the burble of a California hot tub." Given this context, questioning the distinction between transformation and translation runs the risk of coming off as championing some of the more insipid forms of New Age spirituality. This will certainly not be my intent, here. Nor will I question what I feel is a valuable distinction between a spirituality that tends to reinforce our delusions, attachments, and self-absorption, and a spirituality that does not. Nonetheless, I would like to consider how "transformation" and "translation" are related, and how they are concretely associated, directly or indirectly, with actual forms of spirituality.

In "A Spirituality that Transforms," the term "transformation" appears to function, more or less, as a place holder what might be called "enlightenment" or "realization." Wilber gives as an example Trungpa's attempt to introduce ati yoga to Westerners and Da's attempt to teach "radical understanding." It would appear that Wilber considers these teachings "capstone" teachings, teachings that finally "deliver the goods," forms of spirituality that are truly transformative. In his account, Wilber suggests that, in the end, the students of Trungpa and Da didn't "get" the meaning of these teachings, and so Trungpa and Da were required to introduce what Wilber calls "merely translative" and "lesser transformative" teachings.

It might be useful to consider briefly Wilber's diagnosis of the above situation. Apparently, the "problem" did not necessarily have to do with the teachers, Trungpa and Da, nor with their teachings. The problem apparently lay with the students, whom, it would seem, were only "fair to middling" and thus unable to grasp the "profound significance" of the teachings of ati yoga and radical understanding.

Wilber's distinction between transformation and translation can be related to other distinctions. Take, for example, the discussion in Integral Spirituality, "Zen and Spiral Dynamics" (pp. 82-84). There, Ken says, "suppose you take a course in Spiral Dynamics at university... You take the final exam and it asks you to describe the 8 levels... and you do so perfectly.... Now imagine another exam. This one says, 'please describe Level 8 experience as it is directly felt.' If your self-sense is truly at level 4, you will thoroughly flunk this exam."

The distinction Ken is illustrating here is that between 1st person and 3rd person language. At the same time, he sets up a disjunction between "inner" and "outer" knowledge that invokes the well known empiricist distinction between knowledge by description and knowledge by acquaintance. Note, however, what Ken says next: "Studying the stages of SD can give you the outside view of these stages, but cannot necessarily transform you" (italics in the original). The point here, apparently, is that only contemplative traditions, like Zen, are truly transformative, and the implication is that this is so because they give a form of knowledge by acquaintance, "inner" knowledge, 1st person "experience," what it feels like to be a Zen practitioner. Another implication of this interpretation of Zen will be that koan examination will involve the practitioner relating to the master the kind of "inner experience" the koan produced in him, how the koan made him feel. Philosophies like Spiral Dynamics, on the other hand, do not give this "inner" knowledge, knowledge by acquaintance; they only give "outer" knowledge, knowledge by description.

The distinctions between transformative spirituality and translative spirituality, and knowledge by acquaintance and by description, can be related to other distinctions, most notably the distinction between the "guru" and the "pundit," but also the distinction between "talking school" and "practising school." It is relatively easy to see how the relation with the guru/pundit distinction follows. The pundit is the teacher who gives mere "outer" knowledge, knowledge by description. He is not trained to guide the student to actually "experience" the subject matter of spirituality directly, the way the guru is. Similarly, only the guru is capable of truly transforming the student. The pundit is only capable of describing a way of thinking.

The distinction between what Neo-Advaitins and Daists call "talking school" and "practising school" can also be related to the distinction between transformative and translative spirituality, and knowledge by description and knowledge by acquaintance. The tension between "talking school" and "practising school" has a long history in Vedanta. We find a similar tension between the Taittiriya and Katha Upanishads; between the two great Advaitins Mandana and Sureshvara; and in the Bhamati and Vivarana interpretations of Shankara. The contemporary critique of "mere talking" can related to the distinction between knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description as follows: the mere hearing of discourses, of partaking in question/answer sessions, only gives knowledge by description. For knowledge by acquaintance, for "direct" knowledge of the subject matter of these discourses, something else is needed, viz., the practice of yoga and meditation.

The distinction between "talking school" and "practising school" can also be related to the distinction between transformation and translation. If we return to Wilber's example of the difference between Zen and Spiral Dynamics we can see how. There, Wilber says that only Zen, and not SD, can truly transform an individual since SD will only give a way of interpreting things, a translation of the world. In a similar manner, merely hearing discourses about Vedanta will only give the practitioner a view of the world and himself, the view of Vedanta, and this view will only allow the practitioner a means of translating his being in the world, but it will not transform him. For that, or so goes the explanation, the actual "practice" of Vedanta (whatever that is) is needed.

In order to understand the contemporary critique of "talking school," some history might prove helpful. In the modern context, "talking school" refers, in particular, to what some call the "satsang" movement within Neo-Advaita, wherein practitioners sit and listen to a teacher give discourses on non-dualism. These discourses often concern how we are "always already enlightened"; how enlightenment is beyond all means (sadhana) and causes; and how there is no need to "practice" since realization is available, here and now. In the satsang movements, or so goes the description, sitting in the company of the teacher, satsang, is considered the primary form of "practice."

This "lazy man's" approach was always viewed as suspect by some, but it especially came under attack when it was discovered that certain satsang gurus, gurus who apparently also claimed direct contact with "non-dual awareness," were engaged in various extra-curricular activities. The assumption here is that if you "abide in non-dual awareness," you will have lost all sense of "I and mine," since your "little self," your ego, will have been thoroughly deconstructed, and given this state of affairs, you are thereby, categorically, incapable of self-centred activities like boinking yoginis in your off-hours. Of course, in the critique of the "talking school" approach there can be nothing wrong with Advaita Vedanta per se, nor with the practice of "authentic" Vedanta (whatever that is). The only allowable inference, then, is that something must be wrong with this "talking school" approach, and with the teachers who had attained their "realization" by means of it. Here, the perceived "problem" does not have to do with the student, per se. Rather, it has to do with the teaching and its modality, and with the teacher who has received his training through that particular modality.

Before continuing I would like to point out how a curious reversal has taken place. Note that what we are calling "talking school" here, i.e., the Advaita teaching that realization is available here and now, is entirely analogous with the "no practice" teachings of ati yoga and "radical understanding," teachings that Wilber described above as truly transformative. In other words, we began with a contrast between transformative teachings and translative teachings that associated the "no practice" teachings with that which is truly transformative, and ended with a distinction between "talking school" and "practising school" that associates the "no practice" teachings with mere translation!

I think that the above example shows: 1. that the concept of "transformation" is, like "redemption," largely an idealization, even if it refers to something real --- some (possible) future state, the conditions for which remain largely obscure; 2. that the adjective "transformative" can only arbitrarily (contingently, pragmatically, rhetorically) be associated with concrete forms of spirituality; and 3. that strictly speaking, the term "translation," defined here as "a new way of thinking," is not the logical complement, the antithesis, of "transformation."

One gets the sense that it is this search for the right conditions or "cause" of transformation that has characterized much of the recent quest for transformation itself. At some point, Western philosophy and religion came to be seen by some as incapable of "delivering the goods," as not living up to certain ideals concerning salvation and redemption. As a result, some seekers began turning to the contemplative traditions of Asia as possible means to transformation. To his credit, Wilber acknowledges that this idealization of the "mystical East" carries with it a fair degree of stereotyping. He notes how it is a "common belief that the East is awash in transformation but that the West... has nothing much more than various types of... translative... spirituality," and he cautions against too facile associations between the two. And yet something like this stereotype continues to be at work in Wilber's writings.

In this vein, the distinction between transformation and translation can be related to yet other distinctions and complementary concepts. One is the distinction between esoteric and exoteric religion. This distinction is one of the core concepts of perennialism, and indeed, the general viewpoint of perennialism has often been referred to as "esotericism" (or esoterism) by Schuon and others. The idea here is that each religion has a mystical or contemplative "core," an "inner" esoteric dimension that is (somehow) more essential than the exoteric "outer" dimension of dogma, myth and ritual. At the very centre of this mystical, esoteric core lays a shared truth, the "transcendent unity of religions," consisting of an ineffable, trans-rational experience of ultimate reality - what Robert Forman calls the "pure consciousness event." That this truth is indeed shared by all religions is revealed by the (convenient) "fact" that the ineffable experience of reality is formless, for if it is indeed formless, then what distinguishing characteristics could possibly be called upon to so as to substantiate differences?!

Again, to his credit, in his more recent writings, Wilber has been distancing his position from some of the more naive formulations of perennialism, and of late he has been more appreciative of the individuality and specificity of various teachings, and the respective "realizations" they imply. Nonetheless, something like the esoteric/exoteric distinction continues to function in Wilber's writings. This can be seen in his attempts to elucidate the differences between what he calls transformative and translative religion.

In his account, Wilber refers to two different aspects of religion: "Religion has always performed two important but different functions. One, it acts as a way of creating meaning for the separate self. It offers myths and stories and tales and narratives and rituals and revivals that... help the separate self make sense of outrageous fortune." This creation of meaning, this "making sense of reality," is what Wilber means by "translation." With translation, "the self is simply given a new way to think or feel about reality... The self learns to translate its world and its being in terms of this new belief." According to Wilber, the function of "translation" is primarily to console the self.

Translation "fortifies" the self, "defends" the self, "promotes" the self. This is contrasted with what Wilber calls "transformation." Transformation, Wilber contends, "does not fortify the separate self but utterly shatters it." With transformation, "the process of translation itself is challenged, undermined, dismantled." Here the self is "inquired" into and "throttled to death." This, Wilber tells us, is "not the offering of a new belief," but the "death of the believer."

As I note above, by questioning the relation between translation and transformation, I do not mean to question the distinction between a spirituality that tends to reinforce our delusions and attachments, and a spirituality that does not. But I do want to question the degree to which what Wilber calls "translation" permeates and interpenetrates what he refers to as "transformation." This questioning can take various forms. In his account Wilber asks about the degree to which the various New Age conceptions of "soul" are really just the "same ole translation game dressed up and gone to town." We might ask this same question of Wilber's own conception of spirituality, and indeed, of even the "authentic" traditions Wilber refers to. I would call this the "ethical" point concerning the distinction in question.

What I would refer to as the "psychological" point concerns the degree to which consolation continues to figure in what Wilber calls "transformation." Consider, for example, the language Wilber uses in his description of transformation. Transformation, he says, "finds infinity on the other shore of death" (One Taste, p. 141), "sees only the radiant infinity" (Ibid., p. 146), breaths "the atmosphere of eternity." Now this kind of language is not mere hyperbole, not simply inflated rhetoric. Let us be exact and call it what it is: it is precisely the language of consolation. Indeed, the very concept of transformation implies liberation (moksha), which is a form of salvation, of redemption, and what is idea of redemption if not the hope for the good life (eudaemonia), for fulfilment and final happiness (what advaita calls "nihshreyasa")? As such, it is virtually impossible to separate the concept of consolation from spirituality altogether without negating spirituality altogether.

Like the ethical point, I would like to leave this psychological point behind for now. In what remains, I will focus on what I'll call the "epistemic" or methodological point concerning translation. We have already indicated this point above with the suggestion that translation is not the antithesis of transformative spirituality. What remains to be considered is the degree to which translation permeates what Wilber refers to as the process of transformation.

Here, the examination of another set of assumptions and associations might help clarify my point. One assumption is the widely held belief that meditation functions primarily as a means of disrupting patterns of thinking, that is, as a way of "deprogramming" the conditioning that typifies samsara. We find this idea exemplified in the hypothesis --- first put forward by Arthur Deikmann and subsequently adopted by psychologists like Charles Tart and Robert Ornstein --- that meditation acts by means of a process of "deautomatization."

Related to this idea is the widely held belief that "enlightenment" involves a radical deconstruction of thought itself - the "destruction of mind." This idea --- found in both contemporary accounts of Zen, like that of D.T. Suzuki, as well as in the writings of Neo-Advaitins like Ramana Maharshi --- apparently derives from Zen and Advaita treatises that speak of the enlightened state in terms of "mindlessness" (amanasta, GK 3.32) and "no mind." It is important to note that the doctrine of "no mind," found in both Mahayana Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta, relates specifically to technical definitions of nirvana and moksha as "nihprapancha" and "nirvikalpa," terms that do not necessarily refer to the absence of thought as such, but merely to the absence of a particular form of thinking, specifically, that which reifies entities by means of conceptual construction.

This distinction between "conceptualization" and "non-conceptualization," or the state in which thought is present and the state in which thought absent, is also at work in the Wilber's distinction between transformation and translation. Note in particular Wilber's definition of translation as "a new way of thinking" and his description of transformation as the process whereby "translation itself is challenged, undermined, dismantled."

Wilber's general theory of meditation is also apparently related to his conception of transformation. Meditation appears to be specifically related to what he refers to as "lesser transformative" practices above. In his writings, Wilber describes meditation as a process in which the "embedded self" is "deconstructed" (Eye of Spirit, p. 248), as a process in which "one begins to disidentify or detach from one's present level" (Eye of Spirit, p. 224). This description of the meditative process appears to derive primarily from the tradition of Vedanta. In Vedantic "inquiry" various conceptions of self - the self as body (sthula sharira), as vital airs (prana), as mind (manas), and as intellect (buddhi) - are all considered and then rejected via the process of "discrimination" (viveka). To be fair to Wilber, there is an important teaching in the Buddhist tradition that can be said to be analogous the Vedanta teaching of the various limited selves, and that is the teaching concerning the skandhas. Here, as in Vedantic "inquiry," various conceptions of self - as corporeal form (rupa), as feeling (vedana), as conception (samjna), as knowledge (vijnana) - are also considered and then rejected.

At this point, we might well ask: "what is guiding this process of inquiry?" Is this particular process, this mode of "meditation" merely one in which one remains "mindful" of the contents of consciousness? Or is something more active going on here? I would suggest that, here at least, there is something else going on beyond the mere passive "witnessing" of the mind. Rather, the process also involves a process of systematic interpretation, of "seeing-as."

On samatha and vipassana in the Buddhist context, Robert Gimello writes:

The degree of stillness recommended varies from technique to technique, but once an adequate stillness is achieved one proceeds to analytically review and thereby immediately apprehend or "see" the meaning of the fundamental truths of Buddhism. Discernment (vipashyana) is the latter, the analytic and most characteristically Buddhist part of the discipline. Since no analytic activity, meditative or otherwise, can be carried on without the use of conceptual equipment, since no data of experience interpret or explain themselves, one must bring to experience a scheme of organization.... ("Apophatic and Kataphatic Discourse in Mahayana," PEW, 26, quoted by Huntington, p. 78)

Gimello's take on the process of meditation is in substantial agreement with that of Traleg Rinpoche, as quoted by Wilber in Integral Spirituality:

Buddhist meditation and experience are always discussed from a particular viewpoint... That is why we need a proper orientation or correct view when we embark on the path.... Buddhism states that our normal views inhibit us and chain us to the limited condition of samsara, whereas the correct view can lead us to our ultimate spiritual destination. We should not conclude... that meditation is all about getting rid of views. (Integral Spirituality, p. 109)

Again, to his credit, Wilber appears to be increasingly cognisant of the degree to which translation - that is, perspective, interpretation, conception, belief - figure in any spiritual path, including what he calls transformative spirituality. Commenting on Traleg, Wilber writes:

Buddhist training does many things, but it is particularly a state training that deconstructs one's identity from mere gross self, to subtle soul (or the root of self-contraction), and finally to no-self Self [sic]. But as Traleg emphasizes, those experiences depend, at every point, on a correct interpretation or Right View in order to make sense of them. (Integral Spirituality, p. 111)

In conclusion then, meditative inquiry and what Wilber calls transformative spirituality are not simply about the "deconstruction" of various conceptions of self. Rather, in a transformative spirituality, the self is reconfigured, reconstituted. In other words, the self comes to be seen as the body of bliss, the body of light, the body of the Buddha, etc. After all, in a transformative spirituality, the little grub-like being is not simply snatched up by the jaws of the ravenous bird; rather, it emerges from its chrysalis as the butterfly.

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Comment by Edwyrd theurj Burj on January 13, 2013 at 4:47pm

It's been almost 2 years since we've heard from you. What's going on bud?

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