Fundamentals of Buddhist Religiosity: Transcendence

Uposatha Day, February 18, 2013

Index to this series

Chapter 4. Transcendence

TranscendenceFlower“I’m Saved!”

Buddhism is about salvation, it’s even about, uh, being born again. The soteriological aim of Buddhism is Nibbana, the Buddhist form of salvation. Nibbana is achieved by Awakening, but it given a particularly lofty scope in Original Buddhism, the escape from samsara, from the beginningless and heading-toward endless round of birth and death.

I am aware that rebirth, not to mention escape from rebirth, raises skeptical eyebrows in much of the expectedly astute readership of this treatise because of the metaphysical issues it also raises. In order to determine what is Core in this mechanism, it will be far more useful to begin with its function, which is, briefly, to inspire the urgency without which Awakening is not possible, rather than with its specific formulation in Original Buddhism, then to parameterize a range of authentic options for fulfilling that function.

Higher Meaning

The Great Cathedral in Cologne, Germany began construction in 1248 A.D. and was to be magnificent. It was completed in 1880, over six centuries later! This makes me think of the original founders of the Cathedral, and marvel at what their motives might have been and what would have inspired them to start a project of this size that would not live to see past its earliest stages. This undertaking certainly required a great trust that others will be there to continue the work through the generations and centuries to come. It certainly required patience when progress must have seemed so gradual in their lifetime. Along with patience it must have fostered a sense of urgency as the significance of this project dwarfed all other considerations in the lives of these founders; after all every decision they made was for an eager posterity, for untold generations to come, after the ephemeral gains, losses and fatigue of their small lives would have been long been forgotten. The small lives of the founders would have acquired huge meaning as instruments of this project. I imagine that sicknesses, deaths, births, droughts would have barely deterred the founders in their determination to see the work continue without interruption.

This particular sample of selfless urgency and determination, of meaningfulness and zeal, comes out of a religious context, but similar examples are actually found in secular realms as well, for instance, in science or in art or among explorers, in which agents characteristically give themselves over completely to a project perceived as somehow dwarfing themselves in magnificence. That greater context is often ill-defined: the glory of God, the march of human knowledge, lasting beauty, going down in history. Even secular contexts this kind of zeal is often considered “religious.” I speculate that it is only this level of higher meaning that can produce genius. The aim of our practice is no less than the perfection of the human character, it is about making something no less magnificent than the Cologne Cathedral: a Buddha. It is only this level of higher meaning that can produce Awakening.

If we fail to find that higher meaning of our practice we can instead easily see no further than making our present lives temporarily more comfortable until we die, at which point any progress along the path will disappear anyway along with the entire human predicament that evoked it. Our practice will be like beginning construction on a village church, rather than a Cathedral, which we expect to occupy and preach in this very life. The result might indeed be competent, but hardly magnificent, something more like common psychotherapy. We will have failed to transcend a petty fathom-long body and few decades of life and thereby squandered the opportunity for an Awakening that might otherwise have been possible even in this very life and body.

Without deliberation our human life is tossed by the sea, blown by the the wind, an plaything of circumstance. This is presumably how most animals live, simply responding to changing conditions one by one with predictable needs and fears. Even when this life presents the human with for sensual pleasures it is still is formless, arbitrary, directionless and existentially empty, until boredom, depression or despair catches up to its indulgences. Victor Frankl (2006), for instance, attributes much of what is diagnosed as neurosis in fact no more than the experience of meaninglessness.

With deliberation and vow the human life can take on new form in the form of purpose, as found, for instance, in career and family. Frankl relates how inmates of Nazi concentration camps pretty predictably gave up hope when they felt they had nothing to live for. For him personally, thoughts of reuniting with his family and reconstructing and publishing his research kept him going, even though he estimated at the time that his chances of survival were no better than 1 in 20. Yet as he attributes to Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

The highest meaning however is not something the human adds to his life, but that into which he embeds his life, as if his life were a single scene in a larger play. Frankl calls this “super-meaning.” If meaning seems better than meaninglessness, super-meaning should be better than normal meaning. A life devoted to service of God, a life devoted to beauty, a life devoted to developing the conditions for Awakening, these exemplify one’s relationship to a higher meaning that transcends this present life, and at the same time brings satisfaction to this present life.

Pretense in Human Affairs.

Very typically a higher meaning requires a correspondingly higher level of trust often in things unseen and possibly unknowable. The argument often raised against accepting things unseen and unknowable is that they are quite possibly not true. Do we really want to entrust our lives to something pretend? We will see that Buddhist transcendence might involve less pretense than, say, God, but just in case lets look first at this pretense thing.

One of the outstanding characteristics of Buddhism is its relatively high degree of empiricism. This has two sources: First, Buddhism is concerned with developing a set of skills in order to perfect the human character behaviorally, affectively and cognitively. This is the topic of the stem of the flower, the Path toward Nibbana and is necessarily a nuts and bolts enterprise, requiring dealing intimately with real observable phenomena, just as the potter cannot learn his craft without learning the feel of clay in his fingers. Second, the Buddha was remarkably parsimonious in avoiding philosophical speculation and unnecessary metaphysics. The two primary metaphysical assumptions of the Buddha seems to have been:

  1. When this is, that is. From the arising of this comes the arising of that. When this isn’t, that isn’t. From the stopping of this comes the stopping of that. — AN 10.92
  2. I recollected my manifold past lives, i.e., one birth, two… five, ten… fifty, a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand, many eons of cosmic contraction, many eons of cosmic expansion, many eons of cosmic contraction & expansion: ‘There I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose there. There too I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose here.’ – MN 36

The first is the metatheoretical assumption that things arise and fall dependent conditions. It gives rigor to almost everything the Buddha taught, and is generally pleasing to the scientifically minded (though modern quantum physicists might raise objections even to this). The second cannot be verified or observed in the present life except by those of exceptional memory. This makes the second almost unique in the Buddha’s thinking. Why did he say this?

The answer is in fact the point of the famous “Kalama Sutta”: the Buddha promoted rebirth for its efficacy. The Buddha argues in this sutta that the proper grounds for accepting a teaching are not epistemological but ethical. He itemizes every possible way short of direct experience that we might think we “know” something and tells the Kalamas not to go by those things. Rather we should ask, with the help of the wise, where the benefit is, where the harm is.  For instance, suppose the Flubovian scriptures tell them that God has given the land of Fredonia to them regardless of who happens to occupy Fredonia at the time (the Fredonians, as it turns out). Should this teaching be accepted? No, because it would cause harm. Even if the scriptures are as true as the Flubovians firmly believe, it would not be countenanced by the good dhammic Flubovian. It is important to recognize what this is an exceedingly strict criterion, often overlooked in the world’s religions.

The Buddha at the conclusion of this same sutta applies the same criterion to the teaching of rebirth, considering the case in which deeds of good or evil alternatively do or do not bear fruit in a future life and discovers that under no circumstances is there a downside to accepting the rebirth position. The lesson: accept rebirth, as a matter of pretense if necessary.

Pretense is well within the realm of human capability, and humans certainly have this capability for practical purposes. Consider that all of fiction, including theater, movies, novels, operas, and so on, are pretense. Entertainment without pretense would be pretty slim indeed. Most children’s play is pretense, and most mammals seem capable of play. Dogs pretend to fight with one another, to chase sticks as if they were chasing prey. This enables them to practice and develop skills prior to real fighting or real hunting. Play also underlies many ritual or ceremonial enactments in religion, whose rationale is not necessarily in the acts themselves but in their function in developing skills. Food offerings to Buddha statues are common and is recognized as pretense in the knowledge that the Buddha is really going to eat what is offered. It’s play.

A baseball game, also a kind of play, is a pretense, even for spectators. While there are real physical actions going on, these actions have interpretations that are just made up, a running pretense that accompanies the physical actions, a counting-for-something. Someone hits a ball with a stick and because it goes somewhere it counts as a home run. Someone touches someone else with a ball and it counts as being “out.” Three “outs” and the other team comes up to bat. A sport, for many among the most tangible experiences in life, is pretense! Myth, religious or otherwise, is pretense by definition, but can likewise shape one’s attitudes in many helpful ways.

Nothing I know of illustrates the usefulness, and at the same time the palpability, of pretense as well as money. Money, such a huge factor in modern life and human consciousness, does not even exist! Historically money has had a physical counterpart, for instance, clams, cattle, silver, gold, then paper, for which a running pretense of counting-for-something was critical, in this case having a certain recognized value in commercial exchange. The physical part has since gone almost completely by the wayside, the physical money we carry in our pockets (actually not in mine) is now a very small portion of the money supply. The rest is entirely pretense: Banks pretend to create it at will simply by clicking some figures on a keyboard to enter it into someone’s account, then pretend mime-like to track its movements from bank to bank. There is nothing more substantial there than 1’s and 0’s in computer memory.  An satirical news article in The Onion imagines a scenario in which the economy grinds to a halt as “Nation Realizes Money Just a Symbolic, Mutually Shared Illusion.”

Pretense is something we use privately all the time to broaden the limits of our reality. A bashful young man about to ask someone on a first date will imagine himself much sauver than he actually is before dialing. Visualization techniques create realities that we then try to fit ourselves into. Athletes find such techniques improve their performance. They don’t have to be objectively “true.” To relax we might imagine ourselves lying on a sunny beach in the Bahamas. Even Buddhism makes use of visualizations in certain forms of meditation.

Pretense is something we use to manipulate others as well as ourselves. As a precaution against nocturnal mischief some American children are told that the “Boogie Man” will “get” them if they get out of bed at night. A grownup is even more gullible: even knowing that the beautiful blonde in the car ad does not actually come with the car, he buys it anyway, just in case. The divine rights of kings, the idea of a better life hereafter, the battle of good and evil, the promotion of “free markets” as an unquestioned force for good, and even an unnaturally strict interpretation of the Law of Karma are pretenses that have all been introduced as forms of social control.

If God is a pretense, He is a whopper. When one grows up with God, and develops a personal relationship with God, recognizing in God the central role in the universe, and in oneself a subservient role, interpreting all things of the world in relationship to God, then God becomes every bit as palpable as money or football. Pretense or not, God serves a number of beneficial functions, the most immediate of which, as I understand it, is to dethrone the Self from the center of the universe. He may also sometimes, in some hands, with some understandings be abused in the service of harmful functions, in some cases, for instance, legitimizing Osama-like what no person could justify on his own. This is perhaps a reason why harm and benefit above all are the criteria by which Buddhist accept or deny teachings. Many faithful hold many of their pretenses lightly, often regarding them as useful tools in negotiating life, much like money, but, when questioned, not literally true, for instance when scientific push comes to religious shove. Karen Armstrong maintains that most people in most lands throughout history have simply never thought about the difference between pretense or myth and truth, and would not particularly care.

Science itself is not immune from pretense, it just keeps it on a shorter leash. The quaint Nineteenth Century idea of purely objective truth has since given way to conceptual models that only approximate reality. Niels Bohr, who developed our model of the atom, stated about his own field of research, “There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature…” Scientists are captives in the realm where they can only make things up, progressively more skillful pretenses which however inevitably challenge what is the observable.  Bohr also said, “A physicist is just an atom’s way of looking at itself.” Models of progressively greater clarity but less correspondence with finer empirical data, trail off into folk science, the science of the common layperson. Models of motion within a curved universe give way to models of mutual gravitational attraction of masses, which give way to sets simple principles like, “things fall downward,” and “what goes up must come down.” What’s interesting is that the scientist probably picks his model opportunistically, reverting past the level of relating acceleration to mass and force down to the level during his leisure time of , “pressing the gas pedal makes the car go more.”

As we move from realm to realm, for instance, from commerce to science, from science to sports, from sports to religion, and from one religion to another, some pretenses become out of place, so we shift to new pretenses. We negotiate a world of often contradictory pretenses and social skill demands a particular capacity for tracking and accounting for the pretenses of others as well as of our own.  Interfaith dialog requires perhaps the greatest skill in this regard and teaches to hold our own doctrine convictions a little less tightly. But short of Awakening we all have them. We live in a world of pretense, so why not one more if it brings higher meaning into our life.


When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of the passing away and reappearance of beings. … I discerned how they are inferior and superior, beautiful and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate in accordance with their kamma: ‘These beings — who were endowed with bad conduct of body, speech, and mind, who reviled the noble ones, held wrong views and undertook actions under the influence of wrong views — with the break-up of the body, after death, have re-appeared in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, in hell. But these beings — who were endowed with good conduct of body, speech and mind, … have re-appeared in the good destinations, in the heavenly world.’  – MN36, the Buddha reporting the second knowledge gained just prior to his Awakening.

Rebirth turns a narrowly circumscribed attempt at happiness and comfort within this single life into an epic struggle for salvation from a beginningless history of suffering. Unless that struggle succeeds that history will repeat itself ceaselessly into the future. This evokes the urgency of samvega, horror at the predicament in which we all find ourselves. As the Buddha spoke,

Which is greater, the tears you have shed while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time — crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing — or the water in the four great oceans?… This is the greater: the tears you have shed…

He also talked about the mountains of bones we have left behind. We need not succeed fully within this life in this struggle, but we can make great strides then continue in the next life and the next. This is the source of hope, passada, the calm trust that through diligent practice we are well on our way to winning the struggle to replace step by step the lot of the common being with something magnificent, with a Buddha. What’s at stake in this project dwarfs all other considerations in this life; after all every decision you make will be for a world eager to end suffering, long after the ephemeral gains, losses and fatigue of your small present life are long forgotten. This means you will continue to practice virtue, even under the pressure of bad times or of good short-term gains, because it is your virtuous kamma that will carry over into future. The fruits of the practice of this small life will acquire huge meaning in the context of this project. Sicknesses, deaths, births, falling stock prices will barely deter you in your determination to see the work continue without interruption. Even if rebirth should fail and bring our project to a halt at our deaths, we will have lived a life of great meaning.

The alternative to rebirth is annihilationism, the view that all our efforts and progress, everything, comes to naught with the breakup of the body. At our death it will matter not one twittle whether we’ve practiced assiduously or just goofed off. The hapless annihilationist lacks the urgency that might otherwise propel him toward Awakening, even in this life, and the Buddha repeatedly reproved his viewpoint.

This former, deeper perspective is the function of rebirth in Original Buddhism, and explains why the Buddha, otherwise scrupulously wary of metaphysics or philosophical speculation, took a clear and firm stand in this one case. What is really at stake, as with Refuge, is the attitude behind our practice. Bhikkhu Bodhi states more succinctly than I have had space for the point I present here:

“To take full cognizance of the principle of rebirth will give us that panoramic perspective from which we can survey our lives in their broader context and total network of relationships. This will spur us on in our own pursuit of the path and will reveal the profound significance of the goal toward which our practice points,…”

For those well disposed to religious skepticism and well practiced in the raising of eyebrows rebirth is regrettably sometimes a deal breaker. Given the well considered importance the Buddha attributed to rebirth it is important not to dismiss it lightly. Actually we have five well placed options in how to think about rebirth:

  1. Rebirth is literally true as described in Original Buddhism. Probably this is the dominant view historically.
  2. Rebirth is a beneficial working assumption even as a pretense. As we have seen, the Buddha recommends this remedy for the the skeptical.
  3. Rebirth is an approximation for something more refined. Aha, I hadn’t mentioned this option yet, but will take it up presently.
  4. Rebirth is a humbug. Why, the “Buddha’s” teachings on rebirth might well have been slipped into sutta after sutta later by monks tainted with brahmanic views.

Having hopefully mitigated the resistance to the pretentiousness of option 2, I will weigh in in favor of option 3, since 3 subsumes 1, is much more satisfying than 2, avoids recourse to the unfortunate option 4 and might have, as I will show, a sound scientific basis bound to appeal to the most skeptical of eyebrows.

There is no doubt that our present lives are woven as short threads into a rich and immense tapestry of human history, of family history, of evolutionary history, of cultural history, of political history, of religious history, of Buddhist history of trends in art, technology and popular entertainments, of relentless patterns and recombinations of neediness, aversion, confusion, contentment, kindness and clarity. Our life and therefore our practice is woven inextricably into something far grander in scale that in fact lends it its higher meaning.

Consider this: If you know that water is flowing into one end of a pipe you know that it must be flowing out the other end. The pipe in this metaphor is our present life and the water is (old) karma (Pali, kamma). (Actually if Awakening occurs in this present life then miraculously water flows in but not out, but that neither here nor there.) Our old karma at any point in time is the content of our character, our deeply rutted and shallow habit patterns of body, speech and mind, our views, our identities, our pleasures and our anguish, our skills, our strengths and faults. It is conditioned continually throughout our lives through out intentional actions (new karma), and also corresponds to the quality of our life.

Let’s let the degree of purity of the water represent the quality of life or character (good or bad karma). A strong Buddhist practice should serve to turn scuzzy water flowing into the pipe into pure flowing out.
(Incidentally in a quote above “inferior and superior, beautiful and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate,” “plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, in hell,”  and “good destinations, in the heavenly world” functionally express quality of life at the beginning of a new life; they need not really require the existence of supernatural realms, since we are perfectly capable of creating and experiencing heaven and hell right here.)

The main point is that there is water flowing into our pipe. Think, for example, about your habit patterns, your tendency to anger, for instance, or to indulgences, the way jealousy manifests, or envy, the way judgments arise. Where did all that come from? I know I am not smart enough to have come up with half of the things that have arisen in my mind in my (uh, pre-monastic) years. This is called our “ancient twisted karma,” referring its obscure antediluvian origins. Our twisted karma is ancient because  our present lives are woven as short threads in a rich and immense tapestry. Our present actions have been anticipated in the lives of our ancestors before us, in our culture, in our evolutionary history and in the rest, then transmitted to us through various channels, even, if you insist, directly from our “previous life.” This is the water that  flows into our pipe.

Since there is water flowing into our pipe there must be water flowing out. Notice that in this model karma can flow out through multiple channels because in Buddhism it does not have to hang on to a personal identity. The karma that flows out is the legacy of the present life. That is why our practice matters beyond this fathom long body and few decades of life. That is what gives our practice its transcendent meaning. We are each engaged in an epic struggle with karmic forces from the ancient past and outcomes that will reach endlessly into the future. Our practice has vastly more at stake than happiness and comfort in this present life. It has never been exclusively about this one present life.

Each element of this refined model can, I believe, be independently examined and verified; the fact is nowadays we know of many channels for interpersonal communication of karmic factors — genetic, behavioral, social, environmental, etc. — that would have been dimly understood at the time of the Buddha. The difference between this refined model and the traditional model of rebirth is that the latter is much more linear. I will accordingly call these the reticulated model and the serial model respectively.

For the serial model pipes would be laid serially end to end such that all of the water that flows out of one pipe flows directly into the next, our next life is heir to our present karma. The reticulated model is more general than the traditional serial model; the traditional model is a special case of the reticulated. But the serial model is (1) inadequate in itself — We can observe the lateral transmission of at least some karma, for instance, from culture to individual, or heck from kalyanamitta (admirable friend) to individual — and (2) difficult to examine and verify — though very compelling research, particularly of Dr. Ian Stevenson and his colleagues at the University of Virginia, suggests that this kind of transmission does at least sometimes occur.

Now … the big question: In moving from the serial to the reticulated have we preserved functionality, that is, are we still within the scope of Core Buddhism? In either case we realize a higher transcendental meaning of our practice as desired, in either case it is found in a responsibility to the future, in producing purity, not scuzz, in this life. There is a difference, however, in the perspective each provides of the gradual progression of our practice through stages of attainment culminating in Awakening. The linear model provides a straight path, passing through many lives but serially, toward Nibbana. The reticulated model provides in this life a greater potential for Awakening in the future, but with less certainty about who will exploit that potential in the future — often many — and less sense of following a direct path. Interestingly the reticulated model fits well with the bodhisattva ideal articulated in much later Mahayana Buddhism, whereby we practice “not for ourselves but for all beings.” I will come back to the bodhisattva ideal in a couple of chapters.

In Sum

Dedicating one’s life to a higher meaning is a condition that in the arts and sciences can produce genius. Dedicating one’s life to a higher meaning is a condition that in Buddhism can produce Awakening. In either case it will produce a fulfilling present life, one of purpose.

Higher meaning for the Christian is attained through God. Higher meaning for the Buddhist is attained through “that panoramic perspective from which we can survey our lives in their broader context and total network of relationships” that comes from realizing that our lives and therefore our practices are woven inextricably into something far grander in scale, a rich and immense tapestry of human affairs. We realize that we are each engaged in an epic struggle with karmic forces from the ancient past and with outcomes that will reach endlessly into the future. Our practice therefore has vastly more at stake than happiness and comfort in this present life. It has never been exclusively about this one present life. From this the urgency that impels us to deep practice develops that also opens up the prospect of Awakening.

Serial rebirth is the model the Buddha provides to help us find our way into this panoramic perspective. Features of this model are difficult to verify and many modern people have difficulty with their assumption and have demonstrated an unwillingness to accept it even as a working assumption in the absence of better evidence. I have explored a way in this model can be generalized in a way that makes these features unnecessary yet nearly preserves the essential functionality of the Original model.

One Response to “Fundamentals of Buddhist Religiosity: Transcendence”

  1. Kevin Says:

    I never turned to the Dharma because I was seeking “happiness”
    I went to the teachings as a way out of my struggle at the time. I no longer have that particular struggle, but my struggles go on. I am much more aware of things that I never could see. Have I been?
    “Saved “I did not know I needed to be saved from anything except myself and even that has changed.
    Thank you once again for the teachings Venerable One.


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