Does Secular Buddhism possess the 'skilful means' that is required for the understanding of ‘transpersonal' Dharma?

The Buddha’s teachings extend from a commonplace understanding and view of the world to transpersonal realisations beyond the ordinary and everyday reality we inhabit. The transpersonal domain of inquiry includes the meditative absorptions and the realisation of Nibbana!

The perceptions we call the ‘formless absorptions’ are relevant to Dhamma-Inquiry. They are not accessible through the noosphere*. They are transpersonal in nature - they have nothing to do with our personal ‘reality’. The meditative absorptions are non-subjective forms of experience. As a consequence of this, it is important to point out, the Buddha’s teachings include areas of inquiry that are inaccessible from a secular vantage point.

Secular Buddhism does not have the requisite ‘language game’ to incorporate a discussion of the ‘transpersonal’ teachings of the Buddha. It can make ‘indirect’ references to the Buddha’s transpersonal teachings in a way that detracts from the ‘lived’ experiences - in and of themselves. Even the Buddha, could only point the way! However, his teachings and practical instructions go beyond the ambit of Secular Buddhist teachings.

Jhanic experiences are a fundamental requirement for the direct ‘knowledge and vision’ of the liberation teachings of the Buddha. The Buddha required them in order to discover the liberating Dhamma in all its aspects and particulars.

When different areas of inquiry get confused we get lost in the thicket of views! The liberating Dhamma is like a lost city in a dense wilderness. The Buddha found a path in that wilderness that leads to the lost city of liberation. This was a simile that the Buddha used to help us understand what he was trying to share with us for our welfare and liberation.

If, Secular Buddhism is unable to point to forms of understanding that go beyond the secular frame of reference then, what is its purpose in a Buddhist context and beyond? Is it merely a spring-board to more effective forms of Dhamma-Inquiry? Is it an entry-point to the Buddha’s teachings for people who are committed to secular ideology - and nothing more? At worst, could it be a sign of the dumming-down of Buddhism to fit the mind-set of the secularly challenged? A sign of the degeneration of the teachings foretold by the Buddha?

The Buddha gave us the gift of open Dhamma-inquiry. We need to recognise this gift and treasure it! We are interested in the liberating Dhamma - this is not a dress rehearsal?


An example of transpersonal insight from the early Buddhist texts:

“Ananda, as long as I had not attained & emerged from these nine step-by-step dwelling-attainments [including Nirodhasammapati] in forward & backward order in this way, I did not claim to have directly awakened to the right self-awakening.” - AN9.41

Phalasamapatti is attained by each of the four kinds of noble beings just after attaining the knowledge of the path, and it can be cultivated and extended by them as well. Nirodhasamapatti however, can only be entered by non-returners and arahats.

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The Buddha’s liberating insight had nothing to do with ideology - secular or religious. It was a french materialist who coined the term ‘ideology’ and, ‘Marx’ used it in his political theory. It is used as a tool to talk about a variety of secular ideologies. Secular Buddhism is a new addition to the list of secular ideologies.

All ideologies - secular or religious - share some underlying characteristics:

"Meta-ideology is the study of the structure, form, and manifestation of ideologies. Meta-ideology posits that ideology is a coherent system of ideas, relying upon a few basic assumptions about reality that may or may not have any factual basis, but are subjective choices that serve as the seeds from which further thought grows. According to this perspective, ideologies are neither right nor wrong, but only a relativistic intellectual strategy for categorizing the world. The positive and negative effects of ideology range from the vigor and fervor of true believers to ideological infallibility.

The works of George Walford and Harold Walsby, done under the heading of systematic ideology, are attempts to explore the relationships between ideology and social systems.

David W. Minar describes six different ways in which the word “ideology” has been used:

As a collection of certain ideas with certain kinds of content, usually normative
As the form or internal logical structure that ideas have within a set
By the role in which ideas play in human-social interaction
By the role that ideas play in the structure of an organization
As meaning, whose purpose is persuasion
As the locus of social interaction

For Willard A. Mullins, an ideology is composed of four basic characteristics:

It must have power over cognitions
It must be capable of guiding one’s evaluations
It must provide guidance towards action
It must be logically coherent … " - New World Encyclopedia

The Dhamma is expressed through the way we live - our ‘lived’ reality. The eightfold path is a method of inquiry - taught by the Buddha. It is not an ideology it is a practice - what we practice the Buddha simply lived! The Buddha did not need to practice anything, right view, right intention, right speech were just like breathing in and out for the Buddha. We may view the Dhamma as an ideology or a belief system but this is not how it is for fully awakened beings. They are the Dhamma that liberates! There is no gap between theory and practice.

The Buddha said: when you see the Buddha you see the Dhamma. When you see the Dhamma you see the Buddha. The Buddha was a living embodiment of what he had realised.

The liberating Dhamma is a (lived reality). What other reality do you think the eightfold path involves? Practice is redundant for a Buddha - an awakened being!

The Buddha did not practice mindfulness he was simply mindful. The Buddha did not practice Sama-Samadhi! Sama-Samadhi is not something that we do - it just happens when we stop controlling and remain aware. We cannot put ourselves into the Jhanas through ‘practicing’ a technique. A technique can tranquillise the mind - get us to calm down - but Jhana requires a letting go. We need to let go of control before Jhana takes place!

Everything calms down by itself if we remain aware and non-reactive when we sit in silence. We begin to (see) why the Dhamma extends beyond a conventional frame of reference. There is the unique joy and happiness that is found in meditative absorption and, there are the boundless and subjectless happenings in formlessness. None of these beautiful or exalted states are the result of directing attention in any way whatsoever - they happen by themselves. This cannot be understood in a conventional sense because the actual transition from pre-Jhana stillness into absorption has nothing to do with an idea or view we may entertain. We can think about these matters but that has has nothing to do with the happening itself.

We may have an interest in theory and practice but all the enlightenment factors are ‘fulfilled’ - perfected - in a fully awakened being. They have no use for ideology, no theory or practice is required.


The idea that the jhanic absorptions literally bring one into contact with spheres of existence that are external to the sphere of ordinary subjective conscious experience, or that in some way transcend those spheres of experience, is an interesting one, well worthy of consideration. But that doesn’t seem to be a view that is accepted by all traditional interpreters of the nikayas.

Also, I wonder if it is possible to completely eliminate the subjectivity that seems to be involved in meditative experience, including the deeper absorptions. Suppose Sariputta attains the third jhana on a given Monday, and no other mediator happens to attain that jhana on that same day. Even if we accept that the various deva realms that Sariputta is in contact with, by virtue of having attained the third jhana, have an independent existence, and are there whether or not Sariputta or anyone else is in contact with them, isn’t it also true in some sense that no other mediator is is in meditative contact with the third jhana deva realms on the Monday in question, and so Sariputta’s attainment of contact with those realms is a subjective experience of Sariputta, and no one else, on that day?

Throughout the suttas, there are a variety of places in which the attainment of nibbana is said to involve getting a footing in, or in some way reaching the Deathless. If we interpret this in a somewhat literal way, we might conclude that transcending all of the planes of existence in which change occurs, and in which some beings come in to existence (are born), and pass from existence (die), and experience various kinds of transformation (aging) while there, there is an ultimate plane of existence that is absolutely timeless, or eternal. It is beyond all change, and utterly undefiled by any mortality or mortal clinging or attachment. The practitioner attains nibbana when they finally reach, or enter into, or participate in, or come into some kind of experiential contact with this deathless plane of reality. When that happens, and so long as it happens, there is no more death for them, no more craving for states of existence or non-existence, and utter peace.

As I said, this sort of picture is sometimes presented in the suttas, but some Theravada interpreters seem very opposed to taking it literally, and regard that conception of the goal as too “Upanishadic”.

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When referring to the noosphere it is important to point out that the "word derives from the Greek νοῦς (nous “mind”) and σφαῖρα (sphaira “sphere”), in lexical analogy to “atmosphere” and “biosphere”. - Wikipedia

The ‘litho/bio/atmos - spheres’ are not analogical in nature i.e. they are not merely conceptual. They are ‘actual’ physical phenomena that are studied in the hard sciences. An analogy is an abstraction whereas the atmosphere etc. is not!

The perceptions we call the ‘formless absorptions’ belong to a domain of inquiry that is different from the hard sciences. They are not accessible through the noosphere. They are transpersonal in nature - they have nothing to do with our personal ‘reality’.

When the formless absorptions are referred to as ‘spheres’ this is also an analogy!

“Analogy is often used to highlight the inherent similarity be-
tween concepts that would otherwise appear uncomfortably
alien, either because they reside in very different domains or
because they are superficially incongruous. When conveyed
through language, a lexical analogy is a fundamentally semi-
otic artifact whose interpretation hinges both on the structure
of the concepts involved and the usage patterns of the words
used to communicate these concepts.” - Tony Veale

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What does that mean?


They are not accessible through the ‘noosphere’ - they are transpersonal in nature - they have nothing to do with our personal ‘reality’.

The meditative absorptions are non-subjective forms of experience.

A non-subjective experience is not related to our personal reality! Our personal reality is dependent on our background and conditioning.

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Well, I asked what all that means, but you just repeated the same verbal expressions again, without explanation. :slight_smile:

Presumably the point you are emphasizing is that these realms are not accessible through human thought, where “thought” means some fairly specific. What? Do you mean discursive thought? Conceptual thought?

But assuming we clear up what is meant by “human thought” in this context, are the formless absorptions accessible by human beings in any way? If so, in what way are they transpersonal or non-subjective? How can something be both an experience but also non-subjective?

If Sariputta had experiences of the absorptions, and some other monk did not have such experiences, then isn’t the difference between them explained by some combination of differences in their subjective conditioning, personal background and diligence?


Non-conceptual in nature - not accessible through the noosphere - the description is not the described - a (lived) reality.

The use of the word ‘sphere’ is a description of ‘formless absorption’. As they are non-subjective there is no one to describe anything while they are taking place. After a formless absorption a description is possible. We can ask: what was it like? What was that about? What happened?

In the wake of formless absorptions we can talk about spheres, we can try to describe them in terms that we are familiar with! To do that, you need a perception of things past - memories - a personal background and life experience. When you are operating within the parameters of your personal background - your subjective reality - you are not in Jhana.

As one of my teachers - who is also a friend - put it: after Jhanas, we can ‘clothe’ them in words! With our everyday thoughts and perceptions - in our ordinary waking state - we can think about Jhanic happenings and describe them as best we can i.e. what Jhana factors are (present or absent)?

An important insight is the realisation of what is ‘absent’ as well as ‘present’ in Jhana - what we lose when the threshold is crossed from ‘access’ to the ‘beautiful’ and, beyond.

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Everything calms down by itself if we remain aware and non-reactive when we sit in silence. The beautiful and, formless absorptions are not produced by directing and sustaining attention on anything. Many causes and supportive conditions bring us to the threshold of Samadhi but at the point of transition there is only a vanishing. We are lost to the beauty as the sense of self dissolves. This cannot be understood from a conventional frame of reference. The shift into absorption has nothing to do with what we have heard or believe.

We are ‘lost’ to the beauty as the sense of self dissolves. You were wondering how there could be an experience without a subject? There is an experience without a subject when there is ‘absorption’ - mental absorption. That which is absorbed is the sense of self - subjectivity. In the ‘pure’ and unalloyed states of Samadhi there is just the happening, there is just ‘the beautiful’, there is just the formless! Then, the absorption ceases and an ordinary frame of reference reappears. The senses become active after a period of dormancy - seeing consciousness arises - then, a sense of self - I am seeing!

Then, we may resume our ordinary everyday activities - live and move, rest and play, perform our duties ‘mindfully’!

Samadhi is a consequence of effortless natural stillness - it is a revocable dissolution of the sense of self. Nibbana - the final Nibbanic awakening - is the complete and irrevocable dissolution of the sense of self in natural stillness (peace at last)!

"In the seen, there is only the seen,
in the heard, there is only the heard,
in the sensed, there is only the sensed,
in the cognized, there is only the cognized.
Thus you should see that
indeed there is no thing* here;
this, Bahiya, is how you should train yourself.
Since, Bahiya, there is for you
in the seen, only the seen,
in the heard, only the heard,
in the sensed, only the sensed,
in the cognized, only the cognized,
and you see that there is no thing here,
you will therefore see that
indeed there is no thing there. [i.e. there is no subject/object dualism]
As you see that there is no thing there,
you will see that
you are therefore located neither in the world of this,
nor in the world of that,
nor in any place
betwixt the two.
This alone is the end of suffering.” - Bahiya Sutta

*Nibbana is not a thing or a process - it is not a personal or impersonal essence - it is not any kind of essence at all! It is not the underlying ‘ground’ of reality as Nibbana is groundless - just this is the end of suffering.

No Parachute, No Ground

There is also a difference between pre- personal and transpersonal! Pre-personal states are those experienced in our early development as youngsters. ‘Piaget’ was a theorist in child-development that had some interesting ideas of particular interest.

There are also pre-personal trance-like states that we can experience. Some Shamanic practices can induce these, as well as drug use etc. Some forms of so-called meditation practice can also induce pre-personal states of consciousness. When I was a kid, I remember one particular musical recording I would listen to - it was called: Black Widow. This music would help me to enter a pre-personal trance - I enjoyed it a lot! I believe many people become fanatical music enthusiasts for this reason - it is used by some to enter a trance-like state. Mantras can be used in this connection!

I also remember one well-known teacher and ‘Maha-Thera’ considering the possibility of different kinds of Jhanas? He said, there may be Jhanas that appear in other religious traditions. Other traditions have different goals and practices. We have an interest in the Buddha’s teachings hence, we are interested in the Jhanas that he discovered under the Bodhi-Tree. :thaibuddha:

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The noosphere is an idea that you’re trying to get a lot of mileage out of, but it’s unnecessary. Why not just say “formless attainments are noncognitive”, and keep it simple? (Otherwise, you’d be saying that they can’t be talked about, while talking about them.)

Now, as to being noncognitive, think about it this way: all experience is subjective. All experience of formless attainments is in and of itself a subjective experience; the whole World, the All, is a subjective experience, and there is no experience apart from this.

The formless attainments are thus subjectively experienced in the mind sense sphere & are comprised of aggregates, or else they are unconscious and thus not experiences. So, while the formless attainments are free of cognition they are still mental experiences, and they can be the foundation for self-views, as DN 1 attests.

They are not transpersonal at all, and they are fully subjective. They are also common across human contemplative traditions in general, and are not specific to Buddhism.

And, how is this related to any secular point of view at all?



I have already explained this above - you need to listen carefully to understand what is being said! You are listening with a preset conclusion in mind! You have said, all experience is subjective! I have got news for you that does not fit with your preset conclusion - it is not commensurate with your conceptual framework. The non-subjective nature of Jhana is not a theory - something that we need to ‘accept or reject’ on the basis of preset conclusions or Secular Buddhist ideology. I am not trying to get my head-around something through thinking about it! I am describing actual self-less events in meditative absorptions. This can only be done post-Jhana! If, Samadhi does not fit your definition of what is possible and, what is not, that has nothing to do with Jhanic happenings - in and of themselves. It has got something to do with your inability to (imagine) an event that is unimaginable from the perspective of pre-Jhanic experience. The Buddha’s transpersonal insights do not have to be reduced to your secular perspective - thank goodness!

You are entitled to your rationalisations, views and opinions. As Samadhi is a transpersonal reality, by implication, it is also trans-logical. There is a difference between trans-logical and illogical!

You are not going to be able to get at a proper understanding of Samadhi within your cognitive framework - nobody can! Through our cognitive framework we can only point the way - make descriptive comments post-Jhana! You have defined Samadhi (above) as: non-cognitive. You asked me to define Jhana as non-cognitive in nature. Therefore, how are you going to conceptualise and rationalise a non-cognitive event - in terms of what is cognitively possible? This - in effect - is what you have done in your preceding comment.

All of this was implied in my opening question: Does Secular Buddhism possess the ‘skilful means’ that is required for the understanding of ‘transpersonal’ Dharma? By your response - as a Secular Buddhist - I think the question has been answered - IMO.

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Have it your way if it floats your boat! :dharmawheel:

Transpersonal is a term used by different schools of philosophy and psychology. Given that the skillful response is ask you say more about what you mean by transpersonal.

  • Can you offer or give a reference to a definition with some discussion of the implications?

What passages in the EBT are you looking at?

I’m familiar with the conception of noosphere introduced by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. For Teilhard, the noosphere is the sphere of thought encircling the earth that has emerged through evolution as a consequence of this growth in complexity / consciousness. Thus the noosphere can be understodd as a epiphenomenon that emerges from complexity of human conscieousness. This gets very ‘spiritual’ in Teilhard’s conception that will eventually lead to a Omega Point – a final point of “divine” unification into the Logos.
Given that encompassing definition it seems to me that the noosphere encompassing the formless absorptions.

  • Your reference to * supports my description above.
  • Would it be correct to say that the conception of the noosphere I’ve described above is more expansive than yours?
  • Can you say more about how you understand the noosphere?
  • What passages in the EBT speak to you of transpersonal teachings?
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There were various groups sramanas during the Buddha’s lifetime. Sramanas are also found in Jainism - past and present. There was the orthodox Vedic tradition that was the dominant religious paradigm at the time.

There may be an etymological connection between the religious title: Shaman and the term Sramana - this gives a hint as to the ancient roots of Sramanism. It could have been a tradition that has its roots in the Harrapan civilisation that predates the Aryan - tribal - invasion of North India.

I read a study of early Buddhism that suggested that it was the sramana/mystic influence in the Vedic/Aryan teachings that lead them to incorporate teachings on reincarnation and the benefits of renunciation.

The earliest Vedic texts make no mention of reincarnation and they teach a ‘worldly piety’ as the proper form of religious conduct. The earliest Vedic texts treat the ‘outsiders’ with suspicion! They were itinerant ascetics who would occasionally wander into settlements - where the Brahmins were the religious authorities. Later on, the Sramanas teachings were incorporated into the Vedic teachings - alongside the ideal of ‘worldly piety’ - and its veneration of Brahma. The Sramanas teachings became part of the mainstream religious paradigm.

Buddhist teachings are part of a long genesis of philosophical ideas that developed from these earlier religious teachings over time. The Buddha’s awakening sorted out all the confusion of ideas that were prevalent in his lifetime - this is what traditional Buddhism teaches.

The Buddha’s transpersonal insights were the catalyst for turning a hodgepodge of religious speculations and conjectures into the 8-fold path of awakening. With the advent of Secular Buddhism a similar dynamic has come into play.

The Buddhists who have insight into the transpersonal Dharma - to varying degrees - try to assist the Secular Buddhists in deepening their understanding of the teachings. Depending on the degree of their ideological conditioning the secularists respond in different ways and, so it goes!Śramaṇa1

I have given definitions of the transpersonal, the pre-personal etc. in the course of this thread. These are the definitions I have talked about and included in the discussion. There is a field called: Transpersonal Psychology - if you wish to explore this theme through the medium of that field there is no shortage of material available online - and published.

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Has “nothing to do with” or includes and transcends?

There is a fairly commonplace understanding of the ‘transcendental’ that we are all familiar with. IMO the Buddha did not teach transcendentalism - or anything like it - as it is found in various theistic traditions and ‘occult’ societies - I have the Theosophists in mind!

What I mean by the transpersonal is explained in some detail in my previous comments. :heart_eyes:

Laurence because I’ve talked with some transpersonal psychologists I know enough to ask you for your description and understanding of it’s characteristics.

What is perhaps more important is to know the passages in the EBT you are looking at.

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They have been provided - read through my comments and you will see I have not been backward in coming forward! I feel my comments are self-explanatory. If you want me to recommend a book that would illumine this theme: “Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond”.

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