Response to Brad Warner’s Annoyed Reaction to Ken Wilber’s Brain Waves

Buddha juggling dynamite ....??

(photo by aechempati @ flickr)

As I’ve obviously stated in the title of the this blog post, this is a response to Brad Warner’s article published on Suicide Girls blog. In that article he compared Ken Wilber stopping-his-brain-waves video to the art of street juggling. Since I’m the unnamed “Facebook friend” and “commenter” Brad referred to who posted the video on his FB page, I’ve decided to post a response here on my blog to provide more context of what started this discussion which led to Brad publishing that article.

The discussion started like this…

Almost a week ago Brad has a link up on his FB page to his blog post entitled, “I (Don’t) Want to be Sedated“. Apparently, at that time he was scheduled to undergo a procedure that required him to be sedated with drugs. Brad is not a big fan of drugs, even those that are “good for you.” So I posted this comment on his FB thread.

good luck. btw, if other Buddhists are correct (e.g. Tibetan Buddhists, etc.) then those who practiced meditation other than zen (or Vipassana) could maintain awareness even in deep sedation or deep dreamless sleep. here’s one person I know of who demonstrated it in realtime. [then i included this video of Ken Wilber playing with his brain waves] ~


My point here was three-fold. First, I was really sincere on wishing him luck with his procedure (which turned out to be quite a painful ordeal and I’m glad that Brad is doing much better now). Second, to tell Brad that some people who have practiced other kinds of meditation could maintain awareness even in deep sedation or deep dreamless sleep (or so they claim). To back up that statement I included a link to Ken Wilber’s video manipulating his brain waves at will. Third, I wanted to get Brad’s opinion about it, as well as get an idea whether Brad has previously experienced or whether he’s capable of maintaining an unbroken awareness during waking, dreaming, and deep dreamless sleep.

Why am I interested? Well, because unbroken awareness from waking, dreaming, deep dreamless sleep has been reported by long-time meditation practitioners in different non-dual traditions, specifically Vedanta and Buddhism. In Advaita Vedanta, waking, dreaming, and deep dreamless sleep are the three great states of consciousness (e.g. Ramana Maharshi often talked about this when he was alive). In Mahayana Buddhism there’s the concept of “Trikaya” (or three bodies of a Buddha) which corresponds to the three great states of consciousness: Nirmanakaya (gross body, waking state), Sambhogakaya (subtle body, dreaming state), Dharmakaya (causal body, deep dreamless sleep). However, in Zen even the “three bodies” distinctions are only the play of light and shadow of the mind. That’s how hardcore Zen is–it has a zero tolerance policy on altered or expanded states of consciousness. So maybe that’s why in Vajrayana there is a Fourth body — the Svabhavikakaya which is the unity or non-separateness of the three kayas. I presume that this Fourth body corresponds to Zen’s treatment of the three bodies as “only the play of light and shadow of the mind.” Maybe people who like simplicity gravitate more towards Zen, while people who like differentiation gravitate more towards Vajrayana, and those who are geeky embrace them both.

Brad being a hardcore Zen practitioner, I could understand if he dismiss the three great states and categorize them as another form of illusion, but instead what I got was a sarcastic response, and I quote:

“I always thought that video of Wilber and his brainwaves was fake. The machine looks like a toy, something he rigged up. I’m sure there’s someone off camera working the controls.”

Huh? My reaction was, Ok, if Brad wants to play, I’ll dish out a dose of his own sarcastic medicine. So I responded with this:

“Brad, I wasn’t there when it was recorded so I can’t vouch for its authenticity. but he [Wilber] recorded that way back and showed it only to close friends when he was experimenting with different kinds of meditation. Brad, just because you can’t do it doesn’t mean it’s fake.”

And then I thought that was the end of our conversation. There’s no use to continue with the discussion anyway if the other party throws out the “it’s fake” gambit. To me it was obvious that Brad was not interested in a respectful intellectual discussion on the subject-matter.

But lo and behold! Brad wrote an article on Suicide Girls dissing the Ken Wilber video, comparing Wilber’s brain wave manipulation feat to a street juggler, and along the way insulting and dismissing the Vietnamese Buddhist monks who burned themselves to death in protest. Wow! I must’ve really piqued Brad’s interest. Or maybe I annoyed him so much that he could no longer contain his annoyance so he decided to write about it on a blog full of tattooed women (which I find hot by the way). For a “Zen Master” I noticed a pattern that Brad is easily *annoyed* by people that don’t fit his Zen-flavored worldview. Below is what Brad wrote on his article. I’ll just quote the relevant parts.

But first, let me pay some respects to the Vietnamese Buddhists he insulted, by turning the mirror of Brad’s ignorance towards his Original Face. Here’s what he wrote:

“In the case of those Vietnamese monks who burned themselves, they appear to me to be deeply confused people. When I see that damned video I just get incredibly angry and sad. What a fucking waste. What they did amounted to the most macho display of macho-ism ever. What could be more macho than burning yourself alive and not flinching? The fact that you actually had to die to prove how macho you were just makes you that much more macho.

“If what they did had actually made any difference in the war, maybe I’d think differently. Sadly, I don’t think their tragic wasteful ugly deaths did anything to stop the war in Vietnam. They could have done a lot more by staying alive and working for peace.”

Really, Brad? The best you can say about these Buddhist monks who burned themselves alive in protest for their freedom is that they were “deeply confused people”? I’m not exactly sure who are the Vietnamese monks Brad was referring to. There were multiple incidents of this kind of protests. But the most famous was that of a revered monk named Thich Quang Duc. Here’s how he is remembered today:

“In 1963, after four years of increased oppression by the Diem government towards Buddhist priests and the Buddhist community the Most Venerable Thich Quang Duc perfomed his heroic deed to highlight Bhuddhist demands for religious equality in South Vietnam his act literally flashed around the world by television. At midday, on June 11, 1963, he took a ride to the corner of Phan Dinh Phung and Le Van Duyet in central Saigon (now Nguyen Dinh Chieu and Cach Mang Thang Tam Street). Pouring petrol over himself, he sat in the middle of the corner, struck a match, and immolated himself.

“His body was consumed, and all that remained was his heart. Later when the Buddhist community tried to cremate his heart it remained intact. It was placed in the Reserve Bank of Vietnam and became the symbol of the Holy Heart.”

“Millions all over the globe saw his self sacrifice, and The Most Venerable Thich Quang Duc has become world-famous figure. Before he passed away, he left a letter to the government of the day, and through them, for the people of Vietnam. In Vietnamese culture, this letter is now known as the letter of Heart Blood. The core of his letter was a plea for all Buddhist believers, monks, nuns and lay people, to unite and strive for the preservation of Buddhism. His plan was to demonstrate to the world the injustice that was being perpetrated on the Buddhist religion and community by a repressive regime and it worked extremely well. Many nations worldwide brought pressure on the South Vietnamese government to soften its attitude to the traditional Vietnamese religion. The Saigon government complied.”

Yeah, Brad, what a fucking waste, eh? Let’s not even discuss the physiological/neurological elephant in the room–the fact that the monk just *quietly* sat there while burning *without flinching* until his body dropped dead to the ground. I wonder how someone can do that when “normal” people shriek like a rat at the slightest touch of fire on their skin. (Dr. Lewis Lancaster discussed this briefly on his lecture on Buddhism.)

Then Brad went on quoting a story told by Dogen to support his view, which, frankly, I find boring and typical of Zen stories I’ve read which could be interpreted in different ways. So I won’t even take much time rehashing it here. It’s enough to say that I prefer to have a discourse with actual living people doing Buddhist practice than arguing over ancient Buddhist scriptures and long-dead Zen masters.

And now we come to Brad’s comment on Ken Wilber’s brain waves.

“It annoys me to see someone like Ken Wilber who does tricks — ones that nobody can ever even verify he’s accomplished, by the way — make tons more money than that street juggler down on Venice Beach who does something far cooler. I guess people are impressed by imaginary stuff.

I don’t see any great value in most of what passes for “altered states of consciousness.” Every possible state of altered consciousness is contained within this state of consciousness you possess right at this very moment.”

Yep, Brad is annoyed. He’s so annoyed that he failed to see the *scientific* significance of Ken Wilber (or anyone for that matter) manipulating his brain waves in real-time which is a direct result of decades of meditation practice–different forms of meditation to be exact. As one of my FB friends, Rene, eloquently said on his reaction to Brad’s article:

“I don’t know what methods Brad Warner accepts for validation and calibration. He sometimes comes across as rejecting everything that isn’t achieved through some sort of Zen practice. Insights from psychedelics? Not Zen. Mapping brain states? Not Zen. Zen cannot be named, and only he can not-name it correctly. And beware of anyone who relates awakening to brain states and biochemistry!

“And what’s wrong with some healthy competition? It provides the necessary challenges to refine reflection and mindfulness. Too many ‘spiritual’ people operate outside of any feedback loops and self validate themselves and their states. As if they never got any insights into how easily we all can fool ourselves.


And here’s another succinct observation by another FB friend, Mark:

“I also think it is a bit of poor dharmic understanding on Brad’s part. He wants to have his cool cake and eat it too. When it came to Genpo Roshi, he was rather insistent that Big Mind couldn’t point out your true nature in an hour (stating that such a feat took years of hard work). Now when it comes to Wilber doing tricks he can’t, he is going to focus on the ‘always already’ / ‘ever present’ view.”

Ah, Genpo Roshi, another personality that really annoyed Brad. But I’m digressing already… So back to Wilber…

Brad’s accusation of fakery aside, Wilber’s demonstration flies in the face of mainstream science’s understanding of the brain and subjective experiences. By neurological standards Ken Wilber is a freak of nature. “Normal” people can’t manipulate their brain waves like that, at will, in just a few seconds. It’s so unbelievable so then it must be fake! Brad Warner should be given a James Randi medal for quickly arriving at that conclusion.

But what really stood out for me was that Brad even had the nerve to call it “imaginary stuff” when in actuality it is an *empirical* and *objective* display that the states of consciousness described in different wisdom traditions are not only subjectively real but they also have corresponding physiological signatures in the form of brain waves which neuroscientists, neurologists, and psychologists could then study. This makes me think that Brad is deeply confused by what is imaginary and what is objective. It must be a Zen thing.

Here’s my point: Anyone can claim that they can have unbroken awareness from waking, dreaming, to deep dreamless sleep. Anyone can regurgitate the words of Zen masters and various mystics in describing their states of consciousness or their experience of the “No Self.” Heck, I’m so familiar with the lingo of mystical literature that, to a certain extent, I can even fake it if I want to. Basically anyone can make those claims and proclaim that they are way advanced in their meditation practice or even totally “enlightened.” So how can we tell if they’re just pulling our legs? One way is to verify their claims by objectively measuring the physiological correlates of those states of consciousness. Brain waves (alpha, beta, theta, delta) is one such measurement. I believe that future advances in neuro-imaging technology will eventually pin-point the neural correlates of different states of consciousness and of different kinds of meditation, including the physiological signature of “No Self.”

Anyway, maybe I’m just interested in the scientific implications of it all, while Brad is just interested in sitting Zen-style and rehashing stories by Dogen from ancient Buddhist scriptures. So be it.

In the end, when it comes to Ken Wilber juggling his brain waves, Brad sees it as “tricks” and “competition.” I see it as very interesting skill that can be developed by anyone willing to put the time and effort. Brad sees it as macho machismo. I see it as inspiring and deserving of more scientific scrutiny.

I’ll conclude this blog post with a quote from Ken Wilber’s journal One Taste (April 10 entry) wherein he talked about the video tape of him manipulating his brain waves.

“I dragged the video out and we all watched it. Sam says I make a total ass out of myself by showing this, since it seems so self-serving, so braggadocio. Probably so. But to me it’s just an objective event. Too bad the test subject isn’t somebody else, because the results are striking to the average viewer. It really gets their attention, and much more than my books do. It also convinced the soon-to-be psychiatrist, as it does virtually every scientific type I show it to.

“I had started doing these videos–entering various types of meditation states and videotaping the corresponding brain-wave patterns on the EEG–as part of an integral approach to studying higher states and levels of consciousness (correlating what I would call Upper-Left–subjective consciousness–and Upper Right–objective brain). I’ve found that there really are distinctively different brain-wave patterns for different types and levels of meditation. If nothing else, this could serve as a simple pilot project for more adequate and controlled studies….

“People tend to get very serious after seeing this tape–serious in a good sense, I think, because it shows them that there is truly something profound going on, that primordial awareness is not just an idea you memorize but the result of actual practice that truly changes your very makeup. Some people are discouraged watching this, because they think they can’t do it; but most people are encouraged, encouraged to take up an authentic spiritual practice and follow the current of constant consciousness through all three states, waking, dreaming, and deep sleep, thus finding that constant ray of Spirit that speaks to each and all in no uncertain terms.”

Comments (8)