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What Does It Mean to Transcend the World?

Featuring Interviews with Eckhart Tolle and Joseph Goldstein
by Andrew Cohen

section introduction

In the East-meets-West spiritual dialogue that has been occurring with greater and greater intensity in recent years, "transcendence" has become a familiar term on the lips of many modern-day seekers. What does transcendence mean? "To transcend" means to go beyond or to rise above limits; to triumph over restriction; to be prior to, beyond, and above the universe or material existence. The concept of transcendence is especially significant for all those who are interested in enlightenment. The Buddha, the Enlightened One, whose insight into the nature of reality is described in the Heart Sutra as "wisdom gone beyond," is a shining example of one who, through his awakening, clearly "transcended" this world. In spiritual terminology, to transcend the world means to free oneself from all bondage and attachment associated with the two perennial enemies of enlightenment—fear and desire. The "world" is that matrix of relationships that is based upon the unenlightened mind's conditioned relationship to those foes. Transcendence of the world, then, is the sought-after goal for most seekers of enlightenment.

But the notion of transcendence does not appeal to the hearts and minds of all spiritual seekers. In fact, there is a growing chorus of critics from different philosophical schools in the spiritual marketplace who insist that the concept of transcendence, or giving undue emphasis to "going beyond" fear and desire in pursuit of "enlightenment," inherently denies the unavoidable reality of our incarnated existence—the reality of our relationship to the earth, our bodies, and our emotions.

Two compelling examples of the "transcend the world" enlightenment paradigm are Joseph Goldstein, one of the most highly respected American Buddhist meditation teachers, and Eckhart Tolle, the German-born enlightened mystic whose runaway spiritual bestseller The Power of Now has captured the attention of thousands. Tony Schwartz, in his book What Really Matters, describes the pivotal moments in Goldstein's life thus: "It was at Columbia, where he majored in philosophy, that Goldstein was first attracted to Eastern religion. He read the Bhagavad Gita—the classic poem written around 500 B.C. that describes the spiritual struggle of the human soul to let go of desire and transcend the self. 'It rang bells for me all over the place. . . . When I look back at my marked-up college copy I see that I was drawn to all the elements of nonattachment.' " After graduating, Goldstein joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Thailand, where he eventually discovered Buddhism. He "felt an immediate connection to the teachings . . . but only when he sat in meditation did he feel something stir deeply inside him. . . . 'I'd done a lot of thinking in my life, and I knew its limitations,' he said. 'This was an opening to a whole other world.' " After leaving the Peace Corps, he went to Bodh Gaya, India, where he spent several years practicing Buddhist meditation under the Bengali master Anagarika Munindra. During that time, "Goldstein's discipline became legendary, even among his fellow practitioners." He returned to America in 1974 and was invited to teach at the founding session of Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, where he met Jack Kornfield, who became his teaching partner. What happened that summer resulted in an explosion of interest among many young Americans in vipassana meditation, the Theravadan style of practice Goldstein had learned in India. That led to the founding of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, in 1976—one of the largest Buddhist meditation centers in North America, which is now also Goldstein's home. Goldstein divides his time between his personal meditation practice, teaching meditation retreats around the world, and his writing projects.

Eckhart Tolle says, in a brief introduction to his book The Power of Now, that "until my thirtieth year, I lived in a state of almost continuous anxiety interspersed with periods of suicidal depression." Tolle was a research scholar and supervisor at Cambridge University when he woke up one night "with a feeling of absolute dread." While contemplating his predicament, he said, "I could feel that a deep longing for annihilation, for nonexistence, was now becoming much stronger than the instinctive desire to continue to live." Following this thought process, "I cannot live with myself any longer," brought him to the shocking recognition that the "I" and the "self" were not one and the same. This realization catapulted him instantaneously into a powerful spiritual experience that completely transformed his life. "I knew, of course, that something profoundly significant had happened to me, but I didn't understand it at all. It wasn't until several years later, after I had read spiritual texts and spent time with spiritual teachers, that I realized that what everyone was looking for had already happened to me. I understood that the intense pressure of suffering that night must have forced my consciousness to withdraw from its identification with the unhappy and deeply fearful self, which is ultimately a fiction of the mind. . . . A time came when, for a while, I was left with nothing on the physical plane. I had no relationships, no job, no home, no socially defined identity. I spent almost two years sitting on park benches in a state of the most intense joy. . . . People would occasionally come up to me and say: 'I want what you have. Can you give it to me, or show me how to get it?' And I would say: 'You have it already. You just can't feel it because your mind is making too much noise.' . . . Before I knew it, I had an external identity again. I had become a spiritual teacher." Tolle, now fifty-three, has spent the last ten years working with small groups of individuals in Europe and North America. He lives in Vancouver, B.C.

Goldstein and Tolle, as individuals and as teachers, are proponents of transcendence of the world as the path to freedom. Contrary to the ancient Jewish path, which stresses embracing the world, or the traditional Buddhist path, which stresses renouncing the world, they both stress that true happiness can be found solely through transcending the deeply conditioned attachment to the "I" concept. As Goldstein says in the following interview, "In recent years, my practice has gotten simpler and simpler. It basically comes down to one thing that the Buddha said: 'Nothing whatsoever is to be clung to as I or mine.' That's it. That's the practice. That's where the freedom is." And Tolle echoes a similar position, "In concrete terms, at its most basic, it simply means to say 'yes' to this moment. That is the state of surrender—a total 'yes' to what is. Not the inner 'no' to what is. And the complete 'yes' to what is, is the transcendence of the world. It's as simple as that—a total openness to whatever arises at this moment."

The freedom Tolle and Goldstein speak about has become the most popular expression of enlightenment dharma in the postmodern world. Their emphasis is that freedom is only an inner matter. And in these revolutionary times of "enlightened" spirituality—where the essence of the highest dharma is being taught free from what many feel is the unnecessary baggage of life-denying patriarchal religion—the democratic and individual-centered path to enlightenment that they teach has understandably become one of the most palatable approaches for the Western seeker.

What both Tolle and Goldstein share is this rigidly undogmatic enlightenment teaching—a teaching in which any undue emphasis on form as a support for the pursuit of freedom is usually seen to be an expression of ego or mind-concepts or "shoulds," which in the end have nothing to do with freedom itself. Indeed, they both fervently resist the notion that enlightenment could ever have anything to do with doing anything other than letting go of those ideas, concepts, and attachments that, in the spiritual revelation, are recognized as being false, wrong, and untrue. They are both examples of "personal enlightenment—in which transcendence of the world and personal salvation are pursued in such a way that the individual always remains free from excessive involvement with the ordinary world. Firmly devoted to the path of unconditional freedom, they avoid any kind of engagement that would risk creating attachment. Indeed, with both feet rooted in the realm of the unmanifest and treading very lightly on this earth, both Goldstein and Tolle, as individuals, are clear demonstrations of a deeply detached engagement with this world. Both are not in sexual relationships, have no children, and have organized their lives ina way that ensures that there's plenty of time for personal space.

Quotations from: Tony Schwartz, What Really Matters: Searching for Wisdom in America, Bantam Book, New York, 1995, pp. 310-11: Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now, New World Library, Novato, 1995, pp. 1-3.


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This article is from
Our "In the World But Not Of It" Issue