Fundamental View: Talk 7

Presented at the Buddha Centre, Second Life on July 27 and 30, 2013.

Talk 7

The Way of Transcendence

Om Ah Hung Benza Guru Pema Siddhi Hung.


The Buddha did not like to answer questions about the world, whether it is eternal or not or whether it is finite or not, the relationship between the soul (atta) and the body, and the post-mortem status of a Tathagata. He discouraged speculating about these matters. The Buddha said instead of speculating about such things, one should work on oneself. This need not imply the questions have no answers. Thus, the Buddha describes the world of sangsara; he denies the reality of the soul; and he affirms the Deathless. One cannot infer from this passage that the Buddha denies ontology, the science and philosophy of being, although it is widely interpreted this way. What the Buddha seems to be criticizing is not the validity of ontology, but rather the soteriological value of a certain mode of questioning, i.e., trying to infer the nature of the trans-dual from the standpoint of the dualistic reasoning faculty.

In these passages and others, the Buddha presents the alternatives in terms of two or four logical contraries. For example, the statements (a) after death a Tathagata exists, (b) after death a Tathagata does not exist, (c) after death a Tathagata both exists and does not exist, and (d) after death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist. The Buddha makes it clear none of these statements is true or false. He does not state there is no truth. Rather, he implies the truth cannot be realized in this way.

Rather, one must work on oneself in order to discover the actual experience of the trans-dual. Spiritual realization is essentially non-rational and experiential. Therefore, it cannot be reached by questioning. Therefore, enlightenment too cannot be reached by questioning. The Buddha points toward the answer by indicating the inquirer should pursue self-knowledge, especially the Four Truths. The Four Truths are not theories but matters of fact subject to experiential verification. By starting with consciousness, one establishes what is known. One can reason from the known to the unknown. Thus, the Four Truths are not merely psychological; they are ontological. Suffering, desire and its cessation, and the path itself exist within an ontological framework. They also indicate its nature, and it, theirs. In this way, the Buddha developed a phenomenology of transcendence.

The apparent denigration of questioning in these passages may also reflect a division already present in the early sangha between the proponents of wisdom, the cure for ignorance, and the proponents of renunciation, the cure for desire. In time, these separated into the Mahayana and the Hinayana schools so-called.[1]

Ignorance is the root cause of the chain of cause and effect (paticchasamuppāda), and desire, the seventh of the intermediate causes. The proponents of wisdom argued, since ignorance (awijja) is the root of the chain of cause and effect, the most efficient way to attain enlightenment is to cultivate wisdom directly. Wisdom corresponds with Right View, the first step in the Eightfold Path. The Buddha says Right View is based on seclusion, cessation, and dispassion, “maturing in release.” A more ascetic school, probably associated with monasticism, held that renunciation of craving and purification, as exemplified by the sangha and by the Buddha himself, should be regarded as primary.

The primacy of desire seems to underlie the popular interpretation found in many books that the path consists of ethics and meditation, with wisdom as the goal of enlightenment itself and in that order. Such a view seems to be inconsistent with the Eightfold Path, as pointed out by Dr. Peter Masefield. Meditation is presented as the culmination of a path that begins with wisdom and intention. This is followed by ethics or self-control. This view leads to different conclusions as to how the mind ought to be cultivated initially, either by developing the mind and the will or by following ethical precepts and practising meditation. The latter is included in the former, but at a later stage. The Dalai Lama discusses the value of knowledge and meditation in relation to each other in an interesting YouTube video. He warns that the practice of meditation, pursued in isolation, without the corresponding development of the mind, can lead to dullness rather than clarity.[2]

The Buddha describes a series of monks who attain a little. Agitated by the experience of awakening, they fall into various kinds of error. The lowest one falls into the error of pride because of the prestige of becoming a monk; he denigrates others. The Buddha says this monk has only attained the “twigs and leaves” of the spiritual life, which he compares to the heartwood of a tree. The next lowest monk becomes attached to morality and becomes self-righteous. The Buddha says this monk has attained the outer bark of the spiritual life and stopped there. The Buddha warns against attachment to rules. The pre-eminent example is Dewadatta, the Buddha’s cousin and brother-in-law. Dewadatta broke away from the Buddha and attempted to establish a separate sangha based on a much stricter interpretation of the rules than that of the Buddha himself. The next monk becomes attached to concentration; he becomes arrogant. He has attained the inner bark of the spiritual life. The next monk achieves knowledge and vision; he looks down on others. His is the sapwood. Finally, the monk who achieves perpetual emancipation has attained the heartwood of the tree, enlightenment itself. The Buddha says there is no falling away from it. It is a qualitative and definitive change of state.

The implication of this story is that the path leading to enlightenment begins with ordination and leads to enlightenment by way of the progressive cultivation of self-control, concentration, and wisdom. In this case, wisdom is not conflated with emancipation but is its immediate precursor. Emancipation is represented as a “leap” in which time ceases (i.e., the eternal present of the metaphysical point of view).  In the Einsteinian equations, this would mean one is travelling at the speed of light. The Dalai Lama attributes this ability to the residents of Shambhala. Thus, wisdom is second only to enlightenment. It is also the first step of the Path. This dual view of wisdom creates a paradox.

The Eightfold Path is the subject of the Fourth Truth of Buddhism. It consists of eight steps: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. The Eightfold Path is the template for the practice of the Buddhist path or way, not only in the Pali Canon but also in all of Buddhism. Its purpose is the fading away of lust, abandoning the fetters, uprooting the underlying tendencies, understanding sangsara, destroying the taints, and realizing the fruit of true knowledge and liberation for the sake of knowledge, vision, and final nibbana without clinging. In other words, detachment and wisdom are both the means and the goal.

Right View is formally the knowledge of the truth of dukkha, suffering, formulated in the Four Truths. Right Intention is the intention to renounce unwholesome kamma. Right speech is the renunciation of wrong speech, such as lying, gossip, etc. Right Action is the observance of the other moral and ethical norms. Right Speech and Action are separated in the Eightfold Path. Right Livelihood consists of earning a living by ethical means. Right Livelihood prohibits Buddhists from engaging in certain types of professions. Trading in arms, human beings (i.e., including slavery and prostitution), flesh (i.e., breeding animals for slaughter), intoxicants, and poisons are prohibited.[3] Right Effort is the desire and effort to cultivate wholesome kamma, apparently an intensification of Right Intention. Right Mindfulness is clarity of consciousness with respect to the experience of body, mind, and phenomena (sangsāra). Right Concentration refers to the practice of meditation, consisting of seclusion, the cultivation of mindfulness, and mental concentration leading to the four meditative states (the jhānas).

There are several things worth noting about this presentation of the path. First, the Pali word samma, often translated “right,” which precedes each of these steps, actually means “perfect.” This meaning contradicts the view that the Eightfold Path is a progression from an inferior to a superior state. Right View is often interpreted as a kind of catechism intellectually acknowledged by the convert. This interpretation makes Right View more of a formality than an accomplishment. Similarly, “transmission” is conferred in this degenerate age on mass audiences the person conferring the transmission, usually a religious authority in a vertical ecclesiastical establishment, does not and will never know or even meet necessarily.

Dr. Peter Masefield makes a similar observation with respect to the meaning of ariyan in the name of the Four Truths and the Eightfold Path. Ariyan is commonly translated as “noble.” Dr. Masefield criticizes this translation of the word. He substitutes the word “supermundane” (or supra-mundane). Henceforth, we will use the words “perfect” and “supermundane” in preference to “right” and “noble.”

Perfect View refers to an awakening by which the subject experiences the truth of the dhamma as direct intuitive certainty. By definition, this excludes the perfection of the will; otherwise, no reference would need to be made to Perfect Intention.  In my view, since it is will, volition, or intention that underlies kamma, the establishment of Perfect View alone cannot mean one no longer generates kamma. This experience is also referred to as “opening the dhamma eye” (dhammachakkhu).

By this experience, one becomes a sawaka, a hearer. One wonders about the notion that Perfect View automatically means one becomes a stream-enterer. A stream-enterer is assured of enlightenment and has ceased to generate new kamma, according to my understanding of the definition. Karmic non-generation could only be true of the aspirant who has perfected his intention.

Nevertheless, the attainment of Perfect View is far more than a conversion in the popular sense. Technically, Perfect View is a qualitative transformation of the mind. Perfect View might be compared with the Christian concept of conversion (metanoia). The Supermundane Eightfold Path must be understood as a progressive refinement of a substance, such as gold, which has already gone through a fundamental transformation but is not defiled by any of its changes. This is the meaning of the “graduated path.” It is, in short, the reification of a potential that manifests decisively in the first step.

The “awakening” experience is reported in all the wisdom traditions of the world. What is unique to Buddhism is that the central aspect of Perfect View consists of a deep realization of the truth of suffering, including its cause and cure. This realization is the immediate trigger of the realization of Perfect View. Elsewhere the Buddha says impermanence (aniccha) is the decisive experience of his enlightenment. Still others mention mindfulness of the breathing. All these things are related; all lead to the comprehensive and essential realization of emptiness, nibbana, and finally the leap of emancipation into the trans-dual itself. Masefield quotes a passage in which the Buddha says, “’Right view races on ahead,’ which it does according to the commentary, ‘in order to prepare the path’” (p. 39, quoting the Samyutta Nikaya i.33).  It is, as it were, a decisive glimpse of a future accomplishment.

Therefore, it follows that there are at least two distinct transformative states, perhaps more: an initial awakening and enlightenment or emancipation. Enlightenment and emancipation can be further differentiated with reference to the Buddha’s enlightenment at the age of 35 and his “passing on” (parinibbāna) at the age of 80. We have also referred in a previous talk to an illumination or kundalini-type experience he had while still an ascetic. In addition, there is his childhood experience under the rose apple tree.

The Supermundane Eightfold Path is clearly a sequence of steps, with apologies to Bhikkhu Bodhi. Nevertheless, the conventional order of the path is often given as beginning with the cultivation of ethics or self-control (vinaya). Ethics are followed by the cultivation of meditation, culminating in wisdom as the result of the practice of the foregoing. Intention and effort are barely mentioned. The actual sequence of the path as presented by the Buddha (I do not believe any texts present the Eightfold Path in any other order) proceeds from the establishment of perfect wisdom to the will to attain to self-control (speech, action, and livelihood) to cultivating wholesome kamma. The path culminates in meditation, consisting of mindfulness and concentration. The sequential view of the Supermundane Eightfold Path presents a very different picture of the path than the usual presentation by those who might wish to make the observance of Vinaya the foundation of the path and meditation its exclusive spiritual practice, with little emphasis on study. However, this can lead to an imbalance that can lead to delusion.

Another noteworthy point is the inclusion of Perfect Livelihood in this very august list. This shows the householder is able to pursue the path as such; a monk cannot practise perfect livelihood, since a monk is forbidden from working. The only possible conclusion is that the Supermundane Path is not reserved for a monastic elite, but for a spiritual elite that includes both monastic and lay Buddhist practitioners. The ariyasangha exists within and above the puthujjana sangha. The Buddha recommended the practice of meditation to both householders and women.

The Buddha also addresses the thorny question of who can teach dhamma. He had already devolved the formula of ordination to the monks (bhikkhus). This made the Buddhist order (sangha) a decentralized, if not perfectly flat, social network rather than a pyramidal one. According to the Buddha’s last words, the sangha did not become truly hierarchical until after his death, when a hierarchy based on seniority was instituted.

The Buddha states that anyone who has attained the first jhana may teach dhamma. Technically, such a person is on the top rung of the ladder, since the jhanas are attainments associated with Perfect Concentration. On the other hand, the attainment of the first jhana is still a cognitive or intellectual state, characterized by thinking, rapture, and the pleasure of seclusion. The Bodhisatta experienced it spontaneously as a child beneath the rose apple tree. Contrary to the rather overwrought accounts of the jhanas in popular Buddhist literature, in both Asia and the West, the first jhana is not hard to attain. In this sense, Bhikkhu Bodhi is right in his statement that the steps of the Eightfold Path are components of an inherently non-linear whole.

Two Ordinations

When Ananda suggested that the spiritual life consists half of virile effort [sic] and half the companionship of good friends and comrades, the Buddha declared the companionship of good friends and comrades to be the entire spiritual life. The sangha is presented as a horizontally extended network of equals. The Buddha says to achieve such a community each member must rely on the others as they rely on the Buddha himself; everyone teaches everyone else. This is the ultimate egalitarianism. It is joined by a common veneration for the Buddha, less as an idol than an equal, “by relying upon the Buddha [also] as a good friend.” The sangha also shared property equally.

Nevertheless, the Buddha also ordained other ascetics (samanas), as though they were being released from the household life into homelessness. The ascetics say to the Buddha, “We were very nearly lost, we very nearly perished, for formerly we claimed that we were ascetics, though we were not really ascetics; we claimed that we were Brahmins though we were not really Brahmins; we claimed that we were arahants though we were not really arahants. But now we are ascetics, now we are Brahmins, now we are arahants.”

The Bodhisatta began his spiritual career as a samana. This is a nice inversion of the relationship of Gotama to the group of five ascetics with whom he started. They rejected him because, being close to death, he violated his vow of abstinence (in their view) by eating some rice pudding offered him by a village girl, Sujata. She believed he was a nagi, the spirit of the tree under which he sat. Now the Buddha is receiving the ascetics into the homeless life. The interaction is clearly a kind of transmission. It includes elements of supplication, characterized by humility and contrition; conversion; and usually some instruction by the Buddha (the so-called “dhamma in brief”). The transmission is followed by an acceptance and a sending forth, in what appears to be a formalized, ritual context.

The ascetics were samanas. They were the yogis of other non-Vedic schools who were, like the Buddha, hostile to the Brahmans. They came to the Buddha and accepted his dhamma. He in turn recognized them and accepted them into the sangha. Then they immediately go forth into seclusion, apparently from the sangha as well, often to attain enlightenment.

The Buddha seems to have instituted two parallel formulas of ordination, including an extended sangha community. A reclusive ascetic elite lived between society and the sangha. One thinks immediately of the Tibetan mahasiddhas of the 8th to 12th centuries. A similar tradition survives today amongst the Thai forest monks. Admission to the extended sangha appears to have been highly decentralized and relatively easy. Admission to the ariyasangha appears to have been the prerogative of the Buddha and perhaps his closest disciples.

Such ascetics must have lived on the edge of the sangha. They still engaged in alms gathering; therefore, they could not have been utterly solitary. Even Kondannya, the Buddha’s first disciple, did not live so far that he was unable to travel on foot to the Buddha and worship his feet before returning to his Himalayan retreat. There he died the next day. The texts imply that the imminent death was the reason for the visit, so it could not have been far. These ascetics practised the last three steps of the Supermundane Eightfold Path – Perfect Effort, Perfect Mindfulness, and Perfect Concentration. They lived alone in clearings, forests, and other utterly secluded places.

The practice of meditation leads naturally to progressively subtler states of mind. This is characterized by the realization of sentience in itself, mind, emptiness, concentration, and bliss. It culminates in the “divine eye” of the “pure bright mind” (pabhassara chitta). This is commonly referred to as Luminous Mind. This is a clear precursor of the Mahayana doctrine of the Clear Light.

He realizes his identity with all other beings. He understands his former births and the mechanisms of kamma and rebirth. An important point is the repeated statement that all of these states are realized in and with the body. The Buddha rejected the theory of a soul that separates from the body. However, the Buddha does not deny the reality of meditative states of mind. Since the soul does not dissociate, these states can only be experienced in the body. Realizing the nature of reality, he achieves transcendence and experiences the direct and intuitively certain fact of liberation. This group may have been the nucleus of what became the sangha of arahants.

Another place to which the Buddhist ascetics retired was the charnel ground. The Indian charnel ground was not a pleasant place. It was filled with the remains of corpses in all stages of decomposition. Some still had pieces of cloth clinging to them, which the Buddhist ascetics gathered, pieced together, and sewed into robes. Ascetics survived on the food offerings left for the dead by relatives and friends.

The standard period of meditation in a charnel ground was 12 years. Padmasambhava is said to have completed the charnel ground meditation more than once. Meditating in charnel grounds was a pan-Indian practice. It was also observed by non-Buddhist samanas (ascetics) outside the Brahman orthodoxy. Samanas must have included proto-Shaivite and proto-Tantric practitioners. Sleep deprivation[4] and fasting was also practised in the sangha. Here is more evidence of a proto-Tantric thread in early Buddhism.

Meditating in a charnel ground brings one face to face with the reality of human existence, with a bodily immediacy of transformative power. Such practices appear to have been reserved for an elect within the Buddhist community. They requested permission from the Buddha to go forth. They also gained inspiration from a personal encounter with the Buddha himself. Not only monastics approached the Buddha in this way. Householders too “went forth.” Some achieved full enlightenment after a relatively brief time.

If there is a hierarchy here, it is not political. Rather, it is based on a profound personal encounter with the Buddha. In fact, it is a kind of transmission, as Dr. Masefield has suggested. It is an initiation in the literal sense of the word. If the Buddha was approached for permission to go forth, one wonders if there were also occasions when permission was not given. Unless simply formulating the intention to ask was sufficient for permission to be given. I have not discovered any texts were permission was not given, but they may exist. 


In summary, the discussion of the Buddhist way of transcendence involves questions concerning the ontological status of enlightenment, the role of questioning, the role of rationality, and the nature of the human state. The Buddha said asking and answering such questions would not lead to the desireless state. Nevertheless, the Buddha himself asked and answered such questions in a 45-year conversation with anyone who cared to approach him.

The Supermundane Eightfold Path begins with the cultivation of wisdom. The Buddha describes the world of sangsara; he denies the reality of the soul; he affirms the Deathless. The Buddha recognized that reason could only lead so far. The mastery of reason must be followed by a leap into the void. Reason must be cultivated to be transcended. Ignorance is the root of the chain of cause and effect (paticchasamuppāda). The direct cognition of trans-dual reality can induce an intellectual simulacrum of the experience of transcendence that can trigger the Buddha potential (tathāgatagarbha), resulting in complete transcendence.

By cultivating the appropriate qualities, anyone can achieve awakening. The realization of the ubiquity of suffering leads to the deep ontological realization of suffering, impermanence, and emptiness. This definitive transformation of state makes one a hearer (sāwaka) of the dhamma. It sets one upon a path that leads inevitably to enlightenment. It is subject only to the contingency of unfruited kamma. The attainment of Perfect View is not absolute. It is only the first step, decisive though it is. Volition is always present. Therefore, one can still formulate the kamma to deviate from the path.

The sangha within the sangha includes a puthujjana sangha and an ariyasangha, as suggested by Dr. Masefield. Although it is the culmination of the path, many people, including householders, may practise meditation beneficially. It is not secret. Enlightenment consists in the attainment of the Divine Eye of the Luminous Mind. There is no soul. All spiritual realizations are experienced in the body. All are described as immediate, certain, and blissful. Enlightenment is not affectless. It is a state of deep and abiding bliss.

[1]  “Hinayana” is not necessarily a pejorative term. It is clear the Mahayana and Vajrayana both assume the truth of the Hinayana as their foundation. For example, it is a “downfall” of the bodhisatta vow to disparage the Hinayana. Therefore, in my view this word should be translated “basic” or “fundamental” dispensation or way (yāna, meaning a “going” or “proceeding”).

[3] Theoretically, therefore, a Buddhist society will be completely demilitarized, vegetarian, and abstinent.

[4] According to the Pali Canon, the monks slept only four hours a day.