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.
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.
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
captured the attention of thousands. Tony Schwartz, in his book What
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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.