How to understand "transcendence" in reading sutta? (Afterthought Ven. Sujato retreat Dec'19 in Hamburg)

On the retreat in Dec 2019 in Hamburg Ven. Sujato read DN 27 with us and proposed to read and interpret any sutta under 4 focuses:

  1. the literal understanding
  2. the understanding when discerning metaphoric aspects
  3. the understanding when assuming ethical impulse and teaching
  4. the attempt to discern transcendent messages/meanings

It is not difficult for me to work with the first three focuses, but I have (and had) no idea, what really is meant with having “transcendent dimension” ,“transcendent message”. I tried to remember all what I’ve learnt in school or in later readings about “transcendence” in philosophy, and are well aware of the the widely used phrase of “the transcendental buddha” and so - but I’ve always instinctively(?) taken distance from such discussions and elaborations, as already in school in the late 60ies as I felt deep grief with some philosophical junkies - in one case really nice person but seemingly lost in their ideal world …
But well, why not try now (being 66, being retired and having more space for philosophical pondering and learning) to get at least a basic understanding what is meant with such “transcendental message”/“transcendental aspect”.

On the retreat I didn’t find it appropriate to take too much time for such an obviously basic thing, so I let it aside there.
Could someone help me out here and now in the afterthought and reflection? For instance apply exemplarily that 4’th focus on some passages of the sutta, and tell/explain me what at all are there “transcendental meanings”? Maybe eventually I shall not second that explanations - but I would at least like to understand deeper, what it is all about when people ponder “transcendental aspect” …


In MN 117 the buddha describes right view as of two kinds, mundane and transcendent. Here (35-47m) Bikkhu Bodhi is explaining what transcendent means in Theravada:

The five spiritual faculties are faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom.
The text he is referring to is this:

" Thus these three qualities — right view, right effort, & right mindfulness — run & circle around right view."

This means that right view has two forms, the right view that is already known and forms a foundation, and the right view that is yet to be acquired. The process of the factors of the path where this takes place is circular, that is the other factors feed back into right view. Their only function in fact, is to cause right view to transcend itself.


I have heard Ven Sujato speak to these four focuses a couple of times. My takeaway is that ‘transcendent’ is one of those terms that deepens its meaning as we progress along the spiritual path. At the beginning of the path it’s useful to simply gloss ‘transcendent meaning’ as ‘spiritual meaning’. Spiritual meanings deepen progressively as we work with them.


Thanks, Paul, for the hint to MN117. I think I’ve read it before, but never noticed the peculiar points…

The key here (my hypothese for the moment) is the phrase “unworldly right view” which I’ve never understood with some deep philosophical flavour, but just as a contrast to “worldly right view”.
The difference between that, made in MN117, seem to mean (just in this context), doing good deeds because this is wholesome (the worldy aspect) or doing good deeds because this is good (the unworldly aspect). The first “because” is still containing illusion, while the second “because” seem to be meant as driven from the deeper insight: that relating to right ethics just by that insight is even more wholesome on a second level - and is declared as to be without that illusion.

Hmm, for me this difference of the "because"s had never appeared to be similar or to be comparable with the difference between mundane (or immanent) versus transcendent. In the (german) wikipedia entry for instance they refer to ancient and middle age understanding of the transcendence as of denoting the un-sensable, un-explorable, un-accessible in contrast to the sensable, explorable, graspable, accessible : the latter which is available to our (rational?) mental abilities.
Now the Buddha’s whole life’s advice is, that even this “unworldly-right-view” is achievable, accessible,… and I’ve now the problem to put this together with the european notion of the transcendent as the un-available, in-accessible to the experience/explanation/pondering in our human, social and scientific world.

Hmm, may be we have here only a case of misnoming of something which the Buddha intended with a philosophical technical term from european/hellenistic thinking.

But this is just some short/quick reflection, maybe even naive and/or wrong. I’m still curious for further comments and aspects.


Hi Gillian - a nice alternative route to such an understanding. Thank you very much, I’ll play a bit with it and see whether I can keep something from it. I’ll come back to this after I had some time to ponder it a bit more.

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“58. Upon a heap of rubbish in the road-side ditch blooms a lotus, fragrant and pleasing.

  1. Even so, on the rubbish heap of blinded mortals the disciple of the Supremely Enlightened One shines resplendent in wisdom.”—- Dhammapada IV ‘Flowers’

The Buddha routinely used opposites to explain aspects of the teaching, and transcendence is simply illustrated by the growth of the lotus. The muddy water from which the lotus grows means the world of conditioned experience, and the key concept is ‘growth’ which means transcendence. When a plant is growing it has two stages, consolidation and growth like the two stages of right view. In the process of growth it has to bypass the muddy conditions surrounding it, and the practitioner encounters such conditions in daily life which must be recognized and transcended. Transcendence implies overcoming the mundane, which must be recognized as suffering, and the practitioner will experience discomfort with the realization the security they enjoy is founded on delusion. This is necessary, being the duty attached to the first noble truth to ‘know suffering’. In fact a judicious amount of conditioned experience is necessary raw material for growth. It is these small daily increments that constitute movement along the path, and you cannot see a plant growing.

To transcend conditioned experience requires a knowledge of what it is. ‘Conditioned’ means it operates on cycles driven by the opposites of birth and death, whereas nibbana has no beginning and no end, ‘the unconditioned’:

“There is, monks, an unborn[1] — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated. If there were not that unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, there would not be the case that escape from the born — become — made — fabricated would be discerned. But precisely because there is an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, escape from the born — become — made — fabricated is discerned.[2] “—-Ud 8.03


Thus have you heard :thaibuddha: :wink:


Thanks for asking!

The basic idea is that the dhamma points beyond. It leads to nibbana, and nibbana is not of this world. So Buddhism is not just about wellness and happiness. These things are part of the path, but the path is conditioned; it’s purpose is to lead to the unconditioned.

So any dhamma passage can be read in this light: in what way does this teaching point to nibbana?


Hi Nessie,

You may already have watched them, but this series of talks:

may be helpful.

The third one went over the four modes.
Maybe there is more detail there and/or you have more of a chance to think about it than in the retreat.