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Conflict, Creativity, and the Nature of God

The Guru and the Pandit
Ken Wilber and Andrew Cohen in Dialogue

Andrew Cohen: GURU. Evolutionary thinker and spiritual pathfinder. Self-described “idealist with revolutionary inclinations.” Cohen, founder of What Is Enlightenment? magazine, is a spiritual teacher and author widely recognized as a defining voice in the emerging field of evolutionary spirituality. Over the last decade in the pages of WIE, Cohen has brought together leading thinkers from East and West—mystics and materialists, philosophers and psychologists—to explore the significance of a new spirituality for the new millennium. His books include Embracing Heaven & Earth and Living Enlightenment.

Ken Wilber: PANDIT. A scholar who is deeply proficient and immersed in spiritual wisdom. Self-described “defender of the dharma; intellectual samurai.” Hailed as “the Einstein of consciousness,” Wilber is one of the most highly regarded philosophers alive today, and his work offers a comprehensive and original synthesis of the world's great psychological, philosophical, and spiritual traditions. Author of numerous books, including Sex, Ecology, Spirituality and A Brief History of Everything, Wilber is the founder of Integral Institute, and a regular contributor to WIE.

dialogue VI

What is the ultimate nature of reality? In their latest dialogue, Wilber and Cohen challenge some of our most fundamental spiritual beliefs as they come to grips with the Absolute, war and peace, creation and destruction, and the unconstrained force of evolution itself.

Andrew Cohen: Ken, let's look into some of the most fundamental beliefs that lie at the heart of our spiritual worldview today. Because I think that many of the ideas we have about Ultimacy—about God, about the absolute nature of things—have a profound influence on the way we see the world. And these deeply held convictions greatly influence the way we relate to life, often much more than we are aware of. And usually these beliefs are unquestioned. So if we want to awaken, if we want to be able to see clearly, I think it's essential that we begin to question what our fundamental beliefs actually are and what they're based on.

So in this issue we're asking a very big question. We're asking, What is the ultimate nature of the Absolute? Is peace the nature of the Absolute? Or to put it in more theistic terms, Is God a pacifist? Or is creation and destruction the nature of the Absolute? Does God make war? Or is God the silent witness? Is he or she completely absent from the stage? Because, once again, our deepest convictions about the nature of God or Ultimate Truth have a tremendous impact on the way we respond to life.

Ken Wilber: Yes. And if I believe that God is a pacifist, then I should be a pacifist, if I want to know God.

Cohen: Exactly! So to begin, I'll try to describe some fundamental concepts that form the ground upon which our deepest spiritual convictions are based. In our previous discussions, we've talked about the nature of reality as a whole and have agreed that it is made up of the manifest and the unmanifest—the manifest domain being the realm of time and space, this whole evolving universe, and the unmanifest domain being the ground of being, the empty void out of which this entire universe emerged fourteen billion years ago. Now, I think our notion of what God or the Absolute is depends very much on whether our view of reality is biased toward the unmanifest domain or the manifest domain, or whether it transcends and includes both.

For example, if we say that the unmanifest ground of being is what Ultimate Reality is, then we would most likely say that God is emptiness, peace, or cessation. But if we say that the manifest realm is what Ultimate Reality is, then we're looking at a different picture altogether. Now we're looking at reality from the perspective of deep time, of evolution. Then we could call God the impulse to become, the creative impulse, the First Cause. From this perspective, God is simultaneously creation and destruction, from the Big Bang up until the present moment.

Then if we want to expand on that, in order to embrace more of a nondual perspective, we would see both the manifest and the unmanifest domains as being absolutely nonseparate and nondifferent from each other. The manifest and the unmanifest are ONE. God is both form and emptiness, and that which transcends both.

So these are some different definitions of God or Ultimate Truth. And once again, the reason that we're interested in this is because we want to know what our relationship to life would be if we were embodying the true nature of God—we want to know what the most right, wholesome, appropriate relationship to life in all spheres, in terms of all of our important choices, might be.

Wilber: Yes. Well, this is obviously a very, very important topic. It has to do with one's spiritual practice as well as, for example, one's political orientation. And obviously in the real world, those two things should overlap in a certain sense. In other words, one's view of what's the correct thing to do in a political process should have something to do with one's orientation to a spiritual reality as well. That doesn't mean injecting religion into politics. It just means not disassociating the political and the spiritual in the first place.

Cohen: Yes, because the truth is they're not separate. If one had a deep conviction that the nature of God and the Ultimate Truth is peace, then one would probably be led to believe that one's relationship to life has to be, at all times, radically nonconfrontational, radically nonaggressive—that right action always has to be nonviolent.

Wilber: Well, I think the fundamental answer to this is found in the Bhagavad Gita. Krishna gives very interesting counsel there. Arjuna has to fight in a war that's going to happen in any event, and of course, being a spiritual person he's concerned that he might have to kill somebody and that this is bad, and therefore, he shouldn't fight. And at the end of a very long and very profound discourse, Krishna says, “You must do your duty. You must remember the Lord and fight.” Now, he doesn't say, “Remember the Lord and don't fight.” Nor does he say, “Fight in the name of the Lord.” He says, “Remember the Lord and do your duty.” In other words, established in nondual reality, you must do the appropriate thing in this moment, which is fight.

Cohen: Right, I agree. When a just society or culture is being threatened, we have to be ready and willing to aggressively defend ourselves or others if necessary.

Wilber: Yes. And Krishna's counsel would be good for somebody who is in WWII, for example, and is fighting Hitler. Hitler's regime was gassing 20,000 Jews a day at that time. Now you can sit there and say, “Let's be passive, let's not be aggressive, God is peaceful, therefore, I'm going to be peaceful and I'm going to help the Lord.” No, you're actually murdering people with that stance, and you're contributing to homicide with that attitude. And that's clearly not a very spiritual attitude. So under those circumstances, what are you to do? You remember God, you do everything in your pure heart to remain established in spiritual love and openness, and then you do your duty and you fight and you kill the people who are murdering people. They simply will not stop under any other circumstance. And if that's true, then it is your spiritual duty to kill them. And I think that's what a lot of people get really confused about. They think that there's simply no way that their behavior can include a duty of aggressive action but that their heart can still be open for a higher cause and a higher purpose.

Cohen: This is a very, very important point. Many people who are awakening spiritually, who are beginning to be drawn to the deeper dimensions of life, are entering into a spiritual marketplace where there is a lot of confusion about this issue. Many spiritual teachers, some of whom are even teaching enlightenment itself, are implicitly and explicitly saying (and believing) that in fact quietude is Ultimate Truth; that the experience of deep peace is God. And this creates a great deal of misunderstanding. Indeed, if one is convinced that the experience of peace or quietude is Truth or God, then inevitably that's going to be one's fundamental reference point. But in fact, the truth is more subtle, more complex, and more demanding than that.

Wilber: That's right. That's a very dualistic view. It takes one partial state that is set apart from an opposite, and it absolutizes that relative, partial state. And the great sages, from Shankara to Padmasambhava to Nagarjuna, really explain this very carefully. Their whole notion, as we're saying, is that the ground of being is present in nirvikalpa [absorption in all-encompassing consciousness] but it's also present in savikalpa [consciousness with subject-object awareness]. It is the suchness of whatever is arising or not arising. It's radically nondual. It can't be categorized as active or passive. And it can be and is present in any active state and in any passive state.

And so you have to have that realization of nondual, ever-present ground. But out of that ground come yin and yang, active and passive. And in the unmanifest domain, you experience the ground as that ever-present isness, that immovable suchness, moment to moment. But your manifest domain is an evolutionary thrusting and unfolding and creative Eros and thrashing, ecstatic pushing into the world of form. And the nondual realization is that you experience both of those simultaneously.

Cohen: So, once again, the important point here is that exclusively saying that peace or stillness is God or Truth is a profound misrepresentation of the nondual totality of reality. And if that is one's conviction, then in terms of one's relationship to life—not just to the war in Iraq, but to one's relationships, to one's work, to one's body, to life as a whole—it's going to have a very profound influence. You know, it's so fascinating how awakening to the evolutionary dimension of the manifest domain changes one's worldview in such a profound way. To awaken spiritually in that context really means to awaken to the big picture, or to a much bigger and radically inclusive view of reality as a whole. It's a view that finally liberates one from what is ultimately a one-dimensional spiritual interpretation of reality that ends up imprisoning so much of one's latent creative potential within a limited notion of peace.

Wilber: Yes, and I think that's certainly not the attitude of a bodhisattva. The bodhisattva has to be a warrior. He or she has to fight the reluctance of the world, get down in the ditch and move stuff around. And stone Buddhas are a dime a dozen!

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