The Perennial Philosophy

From the book Grace and Grit by Ken Wilber and Treya Killam Wilber, pages 77-88.. © 1991.

Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston,


TREYA KILLAM WILBER: Why don't you start by explaining what you mean by the "perennial philosophy"?

KEN WILBUR: The perennial philosophy is the worldview that has been embraced by the vast majority of the world's greatest spiritual teachers, philosophers, thinkers, and even scientists. It's called "perennial'' or "universal" because it shows up in virtually all cultures across the globe and across the ages. We find it in India, Mexico, China, Japan, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Tibet, Germany, Greece ....

And wherever we find it, it has essentially similar features, it is in essential agreement the world over. We moderns, who can hardly agree on anything, find this rather hard to believe. But as Alan Watts summarized the available evidence--I'll have to read this--"Thus we are hardly aware of the extreme peculiarity of our own position, and find it difficult to recognize the plain fact that there has otherwise been a single philosophical consensus of universal extent. It has been held by [men and women] who report the same insights and teach the same essential doctrine whether living today or six thousand years ago, whether from New Mexico in the Far West or from Japan in the Far East."

This is really quite remarkable. I think, fundamentally, it's a testament to the universal nature of these truths, to the universal experience of a collective humanity that has everywhere agreed to certain profound truths about the human condition and about its access to the Divine. That's one way to describe the philosophia perennis.

TKW: Now you say that the perennial philosophy is essentially the same in various cultures. But what about the modern argument that all knowledge is molded by language and culture, and since cultures and languages differ dramatically from one another, there is simply no way that any sort of universal or collective truths about the human condition could be found? There is no human condition, there is only human history, and these histories are everywhere quite different. What about this whole notion of cultural relativity?

KW: There is much truth to that--there are indeed quite different cultures of "local knowledge," and exploring those differences is a very important endeavor. But cultural relativity is not the whole truth. In addition to obvious cultural differences, such as food styles or linguistic structures or mating customs, there are many phenomena of human existence that are largely universal or collective. The human body, for example, has two hundred and eight bones, one heart, two kidneys, and so on, whether it appears in Manhattan or Mozambique, whether it appears today or a thousand years ago. These universal features we call "deep structures," because they are everywhere essentially the same. On the other hand, this doesn't stop various cultures from using these deep structures in quite different ways, from Chinese footbinding to Ubangi lip-stretching to body painting to clothing styles to modes of bodily play, sex, and labor, all of which vary considerably from culture to culture. These variables we call "surface structures," since they are local and not universal.

We see the same thing in the area of the human mind. In addition to surface structures that vary from culture to culture, the human mind, like the body, has deep structures that are essentially similar across cultures. That is, wherever human minds emerge, they all have the capacity to form images, symbols, concepts, and rules. The particular images and symbols vary from culture to culture, it is true, but the very capacity to form these mental and linguistic structures, and the very structures themselves, are essentially similar wherever they appear. Just as the human body grows hair, the human mind grows symbols. The mental surface structures vary considerably, but the mental deep structures are quite similar.

Now, just as the human body universally grows hair and the human mind universally grows ideas, so the human spirit universally grows intuitions of the Divine. And those intuitions and insights form the core of the world's great spiritual or wisdom traditions. And again, although the surface structures of the great traditions are most certainly quite different, their deep structures are quite similar, often identical. Thus, it's mostly the deep structures of the human encounter with the Divine that the perennial philosophy is interested in. Because when you can find a truth that the Hindus and Christians and Buddhists and Taoists and Sufis all agree on, then you have probably found something that is profoundly important, something that tells you about universal truths and ultimate meanings, something that touches the very core of the human condition.

TKW: At first glance, it's hard to see what Buddhism and Christianity would agree on. So what exactly are some of the essentials of the perennial philosophy? Could you go over its major points? How many profound truths or points of agreement are there?

KW: Dozens. I'll give you seven of what I think are the most important. One, Spirit exists, and Two, Spirit is found within. Three, most of us don't realize this Spirit within, however, because we are living in a world of sin, separation, and duality--that is, we are living in a fallen or illusory state. Four, there is a way out of this fallen state of sin and illusion, there is a Path to our liberation. Five, if we follow this Path to its conclusion, the result is a Rebirth or Enlightenment, a direct experience of Spirit within, a Supreme Liberation, which--Six--marks the end of sin and suffering, and which--Seven--issues in social action of mercy and compassion on behalf of all sentient beings.

TKW: That's a lot of information! Let's go over them one at a time. Spirit exists.

KW: Spirit exists, God exists, a Supreme Reality exists. Brahman, Dharmakaya, Kether, Tao, Allah, Shiva, Yahweh, Aton--"They call Him many who is really One."

TKW: But how do you know Spirit exists? The mystics say it does, but on what do they base their claims?

KW: On direct experience. Their claims are based, not on mere beliefs or ideas, theories or dogmas, but rather on direct experience, actual spiritual experience. This is what sets the mystics apart from merely dogmatic religious beliefs.

TKW: But what about the argument that the mystical experience is not valid knowledge because it is ineffable and therefore incommunicable?

KW: The mystical experience is indeed ineffable, or not capable of being entirely put into words. Like any experience--a sunset, eating a piece of cake, listening to Bach--one has to have the actual experience to see what it's like. But we don't therefore conclude that sunset, cake, and music don't exist or aren't valid. Further, even though the mystical experience is largely ineffable, it can be communicated or transmitted. Namely, by taking up spiritual practice under the guidance of a spiritual master or teacher, just like, for example, judo can be taught but not spoken.

TKW: But the mystical experience, which seems so certain to the mystic, could in fact simply be mistaken. The mystics might think they are becoming one with God, but that doesn't necessarily mean that's what's actually happening. No knowledge can be absolutely certain.

KW: I agree that mystical experiences are in principle no more certain than any other direct experiences. But far from pulling down the mystics' claims, that argument actually elevates their claims to a status equal to all other experiential knowledge, a status I would definitely accept. In other words, this argument against mystical knowledge actually applies to all forms of knowledge based on experiential evidence, including empirical sciences. I think I'm looking at the moon, but I could be mistaken; physicists think electrons exist, but they could be mistaken; critics think Hamlet was written by a historical person called Shakespeare, but they could be mistaken; and so on. How do we find out? We check it against more experience--which is also exactly what the mystics have historically done, checking and refining their experiences over the decades, centuries, and even millennia, a track record that makes modern science look like a johnny-come-lately. The point is that, far from tossing out the mystics' claims, this argument actually and correctly gives their claims exactly the same status as informed experts in any other field that relies on evidence to decide issues.

TKW: Fair enough. But I've often heard it said that the mystical vision could in fact be schizophrenic. How do you respond to that common charge?

KW: I don't think anybody doubts that a few mystics might also manifest some schizophrenic elements, and that some schizophrenics might also evidence mystical insights. But I don't know any authority in the field who believes mystical experiences are basically and primarily schizophrenic hallucinations. I know a fair number of nonauthorities who think so, and it's hard to convince them otherwise in a short space. So let me just say that the spiritual and contemplative practices used by mystics--such as contemplative prayer or meditation--can be fairly strong, but they simply are not strong enough to take wholesale numbers of normal, healthy, adult men and women and turn them, in the space of a few years, into floridly hallucinating schizophrenics. Zen Master Hakuin left behind him eighty-three fully transmitted students, who together revitalized and organized Japanese Zen. Eighty-three hallucinating schizophrenics couldn't organize a trip to the toilet, let alone Japanese Zen.

TKW: [Laughing] One last objection: The notion of being "one with Spirit" is just a regressive defense mechanism designed to shield a person from the horrors of mortality and finititude.

KW: If "oneness with Spirit" is merely believed in, as an idea or a hope, then it is frequently part of a person's "immortality project," a system of defenses designed to magically or regressively ward off death and promise an expansion or continuation of life, as I tried to explain in Up from Eden and A Sociable God. But the experience of timeless unity with Spirit is not an idea or a wish; it is a direct apprehension, and we can treat that direct experience in one of three ways: claim it is hallucinatory, which I just answered; claim it is mistaken, which I also just answered; or accept it as it announces itself to be, a direct experience of Spirit.

TKW: So you're saying, in effect, that genuine mysticism, as opposed to dogmatic religion, is very scientific, because it relies on direct experiential evidence and testing.

KW: Yes, that's right. The mystics ask you to take nothing on mere belief. Rather, they give you a set of experiments to test in your own awareness and experience. The laboratory is your own mind, the experiment is meditation. You yourself try it, and compare your test results with others who have also performed the experiment. Out of this consensually validated pool of experiential knowledge, you arrive at certain laws of the spirit--at certain "profound truths," if you will. And the first is: God is.

TKW: So that brings us back to the perennial philosophy, or mystical philosophy, and seven of its major points. The second was, Spirit within.

KW: Spirit within, there is a universe within. The stunning message of the mystics is that in the very core of your being, you are God. Strictly speaking, God is neither within nor without--Spirit transcends all duality. But one discovers this by consistently looking within, until "within" becomes "beyond." The most famous version of this perennial truth occurs in the Chandogya Upanishad, where it says, "In this very being of yours, you do not perceive the True; but there in fact it is. In that which is the subtle essence of your own being, all that exists has its Self. An invisible and subtle essence is the Spirit of the whole universe. That is the True, that is the Self, and thou, thou art That."

Thou are That--tat tvam asi. Needless to say, the "thou" that is "That," the you that is God, is not your individual and isolated self or ego, this or that self, Mr. or Ms. So-and-so. In fact, the individual self or ego is precisely what blocks the realization of the Supreme Identity in the first place. Rather, the "you" in question is the deepest part of you--or, if you wish, the highest part of you--the subtle essence, as the Upanishad put it, that transcends your mortal ego and directly partakes of the Divine. In Judaism it is called the ruach, the divine and supraindividual spirit in each and every person, and not the nefesh, or the individual ego. In Christianity, it is the indwelling pneuma or spirit that is of one essence with God, and not the individual psyche or soul, which at best can worship God. As Coomaraswamy said, the distinction between a person's immortal-eternal spirit and a person's individual-mortal soul (meaning ego) is a fundamental tenet of the perennial philosophy. I think this is the only way to understand, for example, Christ's otherwise strange remarks that a person could not be a true Christian "unless he hateth his own soul." It is only by "hating" or "throwing out" or "transcending'' your mortal soul that you discover your immortal spirit, one with All.

TKW: St. Paul said, "I live, yet not I, but Christ in me." You're saying that St. Paul discovered his true Self, which is one with Christ, and this replaced his old or lower self, his individual soul or psyche.

KW: Yes. Your ruach, or ground, is the Supreme Reality, not your nefesh, or ego. Obviously, if you think that your individual ego is God, you're in big trouble. You would, in fact, be suffering from psychoses, from paranoid schizophrenia. That's obviously not what the world's greatest philosophers and sages have in mind.

TKW: But why, then, aren't more people aware of that? If Spirit is in fact within, why isn't it obvious to everybody?

KW: Well, that's the third point. If I am really one with God, why don't I realize that? Something must separate me from Spirit. Why this Fall? What's the sin?

TKW: It's not eating an apple.

KW: [Laughing] It's not eating an apple.

The various traditions give many answers to this question, but they all essentially come down to this: I cannot perceive my own true identity, or my union with Spirit, because my awareness is clouded and obstructed by a certain activity that I am now engaged in. And that activity, although known by many different names, is simply the activity of contracting and focusing awareness on my individual self or personal ego. My awareness is not open, relaxed, and God-centered, it is closed, contracted, and self-centered. And precisely because I am identified with the self-contraction to the exclusion of everything else, I can't find or discover my prior identity, my true identity, with the All. My individual nature, "the natural man," is thus fallen, or lives in sin and separation and alienation from Spirit and from the rest of the world. I am set apart and isolated from the world "out there," which I perceive as if it were entirely external and alien and hostile to my own being. And as for my own being itself, it certainly does not seem to be one with the All, one with everything that exists, one with infinite Spirit; rather, it seems completely boxed up and imprisoned in this isolated wall of mortal flesh.

TKW: This situation is often called "dualism," isn't it?

KW: Yes, that's right. I split myself as "subject" apart from the world of "objects" out there, and then based upon this original dualism, 1 continue to split the world into all sorts of conflicting opposites: pleasure versus pain, good versus evil, true versus false, and so on. And according to the perennial philosophy, awareness dominated by the self-contraction, by the subject/object dualism, cannot perceive reality as it is, reality in its wholeness, reality as the Supreme Identity. Sin, in other words, is the self-contraction, the separate-self sense, the ego. Sin is not something the self does, it is something the self is.

Furthermore, the self-contraction, the isolated subject "in here," precisely because it does not recognize its true identity with the All, feels an acute sense of lack, of deprivation, of fragmentation. The separate-self sense, in other words, is born in suffering--it is born "fallen." Suffering is not something that happens to the separate self, it is something that is inherent in the separate self. "Sin," "suffering," and "self" are so many names for the same process, the same contraction or fragmentation of awareness. You cannot rescue the self from suffering. As Gautama Buddha put it, to end suffering you must end the self--they rise and fall together.

TKW: So this dualistic world is a fallen world, and the original sin is the self-contraction, in each of us. And you're saying that not just the Eastern mystics but also the Western mystics actually define sin and Hell as being due to the separate self?

KW: The separate self and its loveless grasping, desiring, avoiding--yes, definitely. It's true that the equation of Hell or samsara with the separate self is strongly emphasized in the East, particularly in Hinduism and Buddhism. But you find an essentially similar theme in the writings of the Catholic, Gnostic, Quaker, Kabbalistic and Islamic mystics. My favorite is from the remarkable William Law, an eighteenth-century Christian mystic from England; I'll read it to you: "See here the whole truth in short. All sin, death, damnation, and hell is nothing else but this kingdom of self, or the various operations of self-love, self-esteem, and self-seeking which separate the soul from God and end in eternal death and hell." Or remember the great Islamic mystic Jalaluddin Rumi's famous saying, "If you have not seen the devil, look at your own self." Or the Sufi Abi 'l-Khayr: "There is no Hell but selfhood, no Paradise but selflessness." This is also behind the Christian mystics' assertion that, as the Theologia Germanica put it, nothing burns in Hell but self-will.

TKW: Yes, I see. So the transcendence of the "small self" is the discovery of the "big Self."

KW: Yes. This "small self" or individual soul is known in Sanskrit as the ahamkara, which means "knot" or "contraction," and it is this ahamkara, this dualistic or egocentric contraction in awareness, that is at the root of our fallen state.

But that brings us to the fourth major point of the perennial philosophy: There is a way to reverse the Fall, a way to reverse this brutal state of affairs, a way to untie the knot of illusion.

TKW: Ditch the small self.

KW: [Laughing] Ditch the small self, yes. Surrender or die to the separate-self sense, the small self, the self-contraction. If we want to discover our identity with the All, then our case of mistaken identity with the isolated ego must be let go. Now this Fall can be reversed instantly by understanding that in reality it never actually happened--there is only God, the separate self is an illusion. But for most of us, the Fall has to be reversed gradually, step by step.

In other words, the fourth point of the perennial philosophy is that a Path exists--a Path that, if followed properly, will lead us from our fallen state to our enlightened state, from samsara to nirvana, from Hell to Heaven. As Plotinus put it, a flight of the alone to the Alone--that is, from the self to the Self.

TKW: This Path is meditation?

KW: Well, we might say that there are several "paths" that constitute what I am generically calling "the Path"--again, various surface structures sharing the same deep structures. For example, in Hinduism it is said that there are five major paths or yogas. "Yoga" simply means "union," a way to unite the soul with Godhead. In English the word is "yoke." When Christ says, "My yoke is easy," he means "My yoga is easy." We see the same root in the Hittite yugan, the Latin jugum, the Greek zugon, and so on.

But maybe I could simplify the whole thing by saying that all these paths, whether found in Hinduism or in any of the other wisdom traditions, break down into just two major paths. I have another quote here for you, if I can find it--this is from Swami Ramdas:

"There are two ways: one is to expand your ego to infinity, and the other is to reduce it to nothing, the former by knowledge, and the latter by devotion. The Jnani [knowledge holder] says: 'I am God--the Universal Truth.' The devotee says: 'I am nothing, O God, You are everything.' In both cases, the ego-sense disappears."

The point is that, in either case, an individual on the Path transcends the small self, or dies to the small self, and thus rediscovers or resurrects his or her Supreme Identity with universal Spirit. And that brings us to the fifth major point of the perennial philosophy, namely, that of a Rebirth, Resurrection, or Enlightenment. In your own being, the small self must die so that the big Self may resurrect.

This death and new birth is described in several different terms by the traditions. In Christianity, of course, it finds its prototype in the figures of Adam and Jesus--Adam, whom the mystics call the "Old Man" or "Outer Man," is said to have opened the gates of Hell, while Jesus Christ, the "New Man" or "Inner Man," opens the gates of Paradise. Specifically, Jesus' own death and resurrection, according to the mystics, is the archetype of the death of the separate self and the resurrection of a new and eternal destiny from the stream of consciousness, namely, the divine or Christic Self and its Ascension. As St. Augustine said, "God became man so that man may become God." This process of turning from "manhood" to "Godhood," or from the outer person to the inner person, or from the self to the Self, is known in Christianity as metanoia, which means both "repentance'' and "transformation"--we repent of the self (or sin) and transform as the Self (or Christ), so that, as you said, "not I but Christ liveth in me." Similarly, Islam views this death-and-resurrection as both tawbah, which means "repentance," and galb, which means "transformation," both of which are summarized in al-Bistami's succinct phrase, "Forgetfulness of self is remembrance of God."

In both Hinduism and Buddhism, this death-and-resurrection is always described as the death of the individual soul (jivatman) and the reawakening of one's true nature, which metaphorically the Hindus describe as All Being (Brahman) and the Buddhists as Pure Openness (shunyata). The actual moment of rebirth or breakthrough is known as enlightenment or liberation (moksha or bodhi). The Lankavatara Sutra describes this enlightenment experience as a "complete turning about in the deepest seat of consciousness." This "turning about" is simply the undoing of the habitual tendency to create a separate and substantial self where there is in fact only vast, open, clear awareness. This turning about or metanoia, Zen calls satori or kensho. "Ken" means true nature and "sho" means "directly seeing." Directly seeing one's true nature is becoming Buddha. As Meister Eckhart put it, "In this breaking through I find that God and I are both the same."

TKW: Is enlightenment actually experienced as a real death, or is that just a common metaphor?

KW: Actual ego-death, yes. It's no metaphor. The accounts of this experience, which may be very dramatic but can also be fairly simple and nondramatic, make it clear that all of a sudden you simply wake up and discover that, among other things, your real being is everything you are now looking at, that you are literally one with all manifestation, one with the universe, however corny that might sound, and that you did not actually become one with God and All, you have eternally been that oneness but didn't realize it.

Along with that feeling, or the discovery of the all-pervading Self, goes the very concrete feeling that your small self simply died, actually died. Zen calls satori "the Great Death." Eckhart was just as blunt: "The soul," he said, "must put itself to death." Coomaraswamy explains: "It is only by making stepping stones of our dead selves, until we realize at last that there is literally nothing with which we can identify our Self, that we can become what we are." Or Eckhart again, "The kingdom of God is for none but the thoroughly dead."

TKW: Dying to the small self is the discovery of eternity.

KW: [Long pause] Yes, provided we don't think of eternity as being everlasting time but a point without time, the so-called eternal present or timeless now. The Self doesn't live forever in time, it lives in the timeless present prior to time, prior to history, change, succession. The Self is present as Pure Presence, not as everlasting duration, a rather horrible notion.

Anyway, that brings us to the sixth major point of the perennial philosophy, namely, that enlightenment or liberation brings an end to suffering. Gautama Buddha, for example, said that he only taught two things, what causes suffering and how to end it. What causes suffering is the grasping and desiring of the separate self, and what ends it is the meditative path that transcends self and desire. The point is that suffering is inherent in the knot or contraction known as self, and the only way to end suffering is to end the self. It's not that after enlightenment, or after spiritual practice in general, you no longer feel pain or anguish or fear or hurt. You do. It's simply that they no longer threaten your existence, and so they cease to be problematic. You are no longer identified with them, dramatizing them, energizing them, threatened by them. On the one hand, there is no longer any fragmented self to threaten, and on the other, the big Self can't be threatened since, being the All, there is nothing outside of it that could harm it. A profound relaxing and uncoiling occurs in the heart. The individual realizes that, no matter how much suffering might occur, it doesn't fundamentally affect his or her real Being. Suffering comes and goes, but the person now possesses the "peace that surpasseth understanding." The sage feels suffering, but it doesn't "hurt." Because the sage is aware of suffering, he or she is motivated by compassion, by a desire to help all those who suffer and think it's real.

TKW: Which brings us to the seventh point, about enlightened motivation.

KW: Yes. True enlightenment is said to issue in social action driven by mercy, compassion, and skillful means, in an attempt to help all beings attain the supreme liberation. Enlightened activity is simply selfless service. Since we are all one in the same Self, or the same mystical body of Christ, or the same Dharmakaya, then in serving others I am serving my own Self. I think when Christ said, "Love your neighbor as yourself," he must have meant "Love your neighbor as your Self.

TKW: Thank you.


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