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Dialogue between Andrew Cohen and Ken Wilber

Dialogue between Andrew Cohen and Ken Wilber 1

Andrew Cohen:
I have never been particularly interested in evolution.
Initially, after my “awakening” in 1986, I was teaching by following what my teacher had sent me. This was my experience: everything is simply what it is, there is no place to go and nothing to do. The essence of the teaching was the realization of this truth. Beginning and end of the story. I was so sure of this way of seeing things that I seriously questioned the authenticity of any approach to lighting that involved time, the future, becoming.
And I was wary of any teacher who taught something that involved time, the future and becoming.
However, I gradually began to notice that although many of my students had powerful awakening experiences, in most cases they fell, at times, into narcissism, desires, neurotic obsessions, they were still prey to deeply conditioned impulses and limiting.
Then I started to increasingly take into consideration the need for a true transformation of the human being, so that it could become a living expression of that emptiness and purity that is discovered in spiritual experience.
Gradually, over time, I became increasingly interested in developing the ability to embody and
to manifest beauty, perfection and totality as human beings in the world, and not only to the experience of the blessing of the pure Being.

This was the beginning. After a few years, something new began to emerge in my teaching. The first time I became aware of it was when I started conducting retreats in India. One morning, while I was talking, something suddenly exploded in me. I don’t know where it came from: an impetuous passion sprang from me spontaneously pressing for this miracle, this mystery beyond time to manifest itself precisely in this world, in ourselves, as ourselves. This caused disturbance and inspiration for many people and also for me. It happened more than ten years ago.
Since then, it became increasingly clear to me that this passion was a passion for something that went beyond lighting in the traditional, oriental sense, meaning as a vertical ascent: free yourself from the wheel of becoming, completely transcending this world without leaving a trace . What is important to me is different now. The perhaps ambitious goal is not only to transcend the world but to transform it, to become an agent of the evolutionary impulse. While the ego surrenders to this impulse, our being is literally pervaded by a divine and luminous energy and a passion to transform the world and the whole universe for a cause that has nothing to do with ourselves.

This change of vision, which occurred many years ago, was one of the reasons that made me move away from my teacher. Whenever my teacher listened to me say that it was possible to accomplish something other than just getting rid of the wheel of becoming and simply Being, he thought I was corrupting and distorting his teaching. At some point, I began to conclude that there must be various types of lighting, different kinds of awakening, with different results too.

I began to call this teaching ‘evolutionary enlightenment’ or ‘Impersonal evolutionary lighting’. In this teaching, the emphasis is placed not only on the realization of emptiness and pure Being, but also on the need to become a radically and profoundly transformed human being, therefore capable of manifesting its highest evolutionary potential in the world. I had never really had the opportunity to come across a vision like this. Only recently, in fact, when I discovered Sri Aurobindo and Tailhard de Chardin while doing research for our magazine, did I begin to find echoes of my own passion. A passion for evolutionary lighting, for an awakening to the truth of who we are; and the courage to grant us permission to feel the urge to manifest it in the world with our whole being.

So what I wanted to discuss with you first is the following question: what is lighting? I think it is an important topic both because many people are interested in spirituality today, but also because the traditional definition of lighting may no longer be able to respond to the needs of a world that evolves over time, the one in which we are now living .

Ken Wilber:
I basically agree with everything you said, of course on some things my approach is different. You have exposed a number of truly important concepts. Maybe we can start with what you mentioned last, that is, if there are different types of lighting. Of course, this question may seem, at first, quite strange, because lighting is evidently all-encompassing, timeless, unchanging, eternal, etc. So it’s hard to imagine that there can be two different types of anything that is defined in this way. But, in reality, it is also possible to find in the traditions at least two important lighting concepts that are very different from each other.
One was prevalent during the so-called Axial period (more or less from 2000 BC to 100 AD). Its best expression is perhaps found in the concept, expressed by the Buddhist Theravada tradition, of nirvana or nirvikalpa, which basically means immersion in the formless dimension, where there is no manifestation, no object emerges.
It is a state of consciousness absolutely devoid of change, absolutely devoid of space, of ego, of agitation. The classic analogy for those who have had this experience is that it is a state similar to deep dreamless sleep. You enter a formless state of consciousness. This state, nirvana, was believed to be the highest level of realization and was thought to be completely separate from samsara. The world of emptiness was completely separate from the world of forms. The void was transcendent and timeless; the manifestation was subject to time, it was suffering, illusion, etc. The goal, without any doubt, was to get rid of samsara, the ‘wheel of rebirths’ and immerse yourself in nirvana.

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I think that the real revolution in spirituality occurs more or less in that period and is mainly due to two geniuses: Nagarjuna in the East and Plotinus in the West. They breached what would be called ‘non-dual enlightenment’ or ‘non-dual realization’. It is a profound understanding of nirvana or emptiness or timeless or transcendent, but it is also a union, in the sense that it embraces the whole world of forms, the whole world of samsara. Therefore the realization of non-dual traditions is not limited to immersion in a formless state, of cessation of all manifestation, but considers that this ‘formless’ or emptiness is one with all the forms that emerge moment by moment.
This state, sahaj, is, we can say, both the basis of the bodhisattva vow and the beginning of the tantric tradition. The idea was that somehow the world of samsara and the world of nirvana should go hand in hand together or it would not be possible to have a full, complete, integral being. Therefore, it is always true that dharmakaya or emptiness or perfectly formless dimension is not involved in the passage of time, but this is only half the picture. The other half is that there is the current of time, there is development, development, evolution, transformation.
The key to all this is the understanding that the only way to completely and permanently achieve the void is to transform, to evolve, develop its vehicle in this world of forms. The vehicles that are about to make the vacuum must be able to cope with the task. This means that they must be developed, transformed and aligned with spiritual realization. It still means that the transcendent and the immanent must, so to speak, give flavor to each other.

B.C. : In the vehicle?

K.W. : Exactly

B.C. : Then you are saying that the vehicle has to improve.

K.W. : Yes. Sometimes it happens that some people have some form of immersion in the void, a radical realization of this infinite, boundless consciousness which is their true reality, then, as you said, this state is exhausted, and those people they return to the usual egoic vehicle, they are again the usual contract, and they don’t know what happened. Yet they do not want to undertake a real practice or a transformative journey that would make their vehicle capable of maintaining that realization in a more complete and lasting way. This is a shame because, as you said, they exclude themselves from the world of forms, from the possibility of being involved in this world and, at the same time, from what it is necessary to do to become a transparent vehicle of the timeless.

The best thing for a non-dual or integral realization is to work on both planes. In a sense, we have to perfect our ability to completely realize the void moment by moment, but it is the void from which all forms emerge, moment after moment.
Therefore we must have a total acceptance of the world of samsara as a vehicle and expression of nirvana itself. Unfortunately, I think you’re right when you say that many non-dual schools don’t respect this understanding.
We tend to favor one horn or the other of the equation: or we immerse ourselves in samsara, that is the sensorimotor sphere – nature is spirit, every manifest object is considered spirit, etc. – or you dive into the dimension in which there is cessation of all forms. While what I believe you and I are interested in and certainly what we are talking about here is a realization that embraces both emptiness and form. And let me add this: evolution takes place in the world of forms, not in that of emptiness.
This then means that evolution is the other half of the equation, so if we do not contribute to advance evolution, we cannot even fully realize that emptiness that we are.

B.C. : Excellent. Now I would like to go further. In fact, in your description of the non-dual vision in which the distinction between nirvana and samsara disappears, in this interpretation of enlightenment, it seems to me,
however, to understand that the idea is still to be freed from this world.

K.W. : Yes, I understand what you mean.

B.C. : Well, then I now face the question of what enlightenment is in relation to the sphere of time and becoming. What I try to highlight is what I call an ‘evolutionary impulse’. As I said before, it is an ecstatic compulsion to transform the world. Now, this push is different from what is said in the traditions of the bodhisattva vow because, in my opinion, the bodhisattva vow is about the commitment to stay around long enough to free sentient beings from this world. But in the ecstatic evolutionary impulse I am talking about, liberation is in fact found through surrender to the imperative of evolving in this world.

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K.W. : Not getting rid of it.

B.C. : Quite right. In this interpretation of enlightenment, all consciousness and energy are used in the service of creation itself, beyond the ego. In other words, the vehicle is used for this great and demanding goal. Lighting, the ecstatic release that takes place daily, must be found and experienced directly and consciously only through an absolute and perfect rendering for this purpose.
At least ideally, therefore, if something like this is possible, there would be no egoic motivations and would be constantly consumed by the fire of this cause which would also escape our total understanding, since its climax always takes place in the future.

K.W. : Yes, I agree with the general sense of what you say. Let me rephrase it like this. As I said before, there has been an important change from the religions of the early Axial period that emphasized asceticism, transcendence, cessation, non-dual traditions. This change was epochal: the void was no longer separated from the form, it was realized that the void is nothing but form and the form is nothing but empty, as the Heart Sutra says. Now this new understanding, which leads to Mahayana Buddhism and Vajrayana, did not exist in previous religions. The oldest argued that the world of samsara is spirit. That is to say, immersion in pure manifestation, in nature. Then came the Axial period which claimed: “No, the transcendent is the only spiritual reality, only the ascending dimension, timeless, is the true reality.”
The non-dual approach says: “Wait a minute, you are both right.
What we have to do is find a way to achieve this union. ”
The original vow of the bodhisattvas was: “I vow to attain enlightenment as soon as possible for the good of all other beings”, in fact, as Kalu Rimpoche used to stress: “If you postpone your enlightenment, how do you think you can save someone else, you idiot! ”This approach became more mature in the tantric vision. However the common basis of the two traditions, at least implicitly, was the understanding that nirvana and samsara, emptiness and form, timelessness and the dimension of time, being and becoming, are the two aspects of a realization whole wheat. In the realization you have to embrace both. But you are right when you say that traditions have often not remained faithful to this vision. I also think there is another meaning or a deeper level of understanding of non-dual realization understood as an evolutionary impulse in the world of evolving forms.

B.C. : That’s exactly what I’m talking about!

K.W. : I think the reason can be found precisely in what we said: a sage, say thousands of years ago, could have a profound realization of dharmakaya or pure emptiness, a profound realization of nirvikalpa samadhi, and then also a profound realization of a union with all forms. So the essay in question would have realized both the void and the world of forms and that they are intrinsically one. Emptiness and forms emerge moment after moment as ‘void of all forms that ecstatically emerge’. But nevertheless, the most perfectly enlightened essay, in the sense of sahaji, of non-dual experience, can only be ‘one with’ the world of forms of its time. And that world does not have the knowledge we have today about the world of forms.

B.C. : You mean about evolution.

K.W. : Of course, especially evolution, its exact nature, what it means, what happens in the world of forms. In it we discover an unequivocal trend towards ever greater levels of differentiation, integration, complexity and unification. It is a fundamental understanding because it means that our vehicle in the world of forms is becoming more transparent and therefore more capable of understanding the processes taking place in the world of forms. This changes everything. No matter how deeply enlightened someone could be thousands of years ago, the world of forms then did not include this knowledge. So this was not part of their realization, even if their realization of emptiness was as wonderful as it can be for us today, because emptiness is emptiness, it does not change, it has no moving parts, etc. So we are not taking anything away from the essay lived thousands of years ago, but we recognize that we have at least one more thing: we live today. In thousands of years people will look back at our world of shapes and laugh hysterically at how idiotic we were. In the meantime, we must move forward in incorporating the radical void into the world of forms. The result is a kind of evolutionary vacuum, or ‘evolutionary lighting’. Yes, it is.

B.C. : In this evolutionary illumination the important element, if I understand correctly, is the surrender to the movement of an impulse that awakens and that pushes to participate in a planetary way in the evolutionary process for the sake of evolution itself. Evolutionary enlightenment is this, it is not a simple achievement of one’s personal liberation from or transcendence of this world.

K.W. : Yes I agree.

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B.C. : I underline precisely this change of accent from one vision to another. This seems significant to me for the definition of what lighting is nowadays, since the number of people who are starting to take an interest in lighting increases, what it is, what it means. I would say that in ninety percent of cases, if not more, the message they receive is limited to transcendence, personal transcendence. And while usually we are also asked to abandon self-centeredness and to feel compassion, rarely, indeed never, we refer to that revolutionary and impetuous passion for the total transformation of the world, that push that arises from the spiritual heart when it is truly liberated from the world. I mean that very often what is served is a tepid and strange mixture of ancient lighting concepts seasoned with ideas on compassion based on “new age” type emotions. In this way, a path is indicated which will not lead to achieving the fire of true liberation.


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