The Buddha and the numen: postmodern spirituality and the problem of transcendence in Buddhism
Lee International Journal of Dharma Studies
The Buddha and the numen: postmodern spirituality and the problem of transcendence in Buddhism
The Western world has seen a significant shift in the epistemic values of spiritual seekers in the past quarter of a century; many have referred to the new epistemic approach as postmodern spirituality. Among the attributes unique to this growing cultural force are the prominence of mystery, enchantment, and the prehension of a numinous other (which need not be a theistic other) as key means of both valuing and validating any system of belief and practice. But postmodern spirituality is not the syncretism of New Age religion; its adherents seek an authentic path, not an eclectic, superficially fused path. How will Buddhism fare in the face of this new phenomenon? Much depends on whether Buddhism is understood by postmoderns to contain mystery, ineffability, and transcendence. Buddhism's first two centuries of significant contact with the West have occurred in the shadow of Western Enlightenment, modernity. Concurrent with this fact, and probably in response to it, there has been a Buddhist apologia which demystifies Buddhism. But desacralized religion, along with the other hallmarks of modernity-scientism, individualism, materialism, and rationalism-are precisely the cultural elements to which postmodern spirituality is a reaction. This piece argues that historical Buddhism does, in fact, contain transcendence and mystery and that it is quite capable of taking a seat at the open table of postmodern spirituality. The analysis applies a predominantly Eastern hermeneutic and examines relevant sacred texts alongside the arguments of both Eastern and Western scholars, pro and con.
authenticity. The intuition or sensation of a numinous reality has become a key
authenticator of faith and praxis. By “authenticator” I refer to any attribute or artifact of a
spiritual system, leader or community which, in the psyche of the seeker, tends to
stamp a teaching, practice or worldview as dharma—as true, authentic or effective.
Such authenticators strike largely in the subconscious and may include intuition,
emotion, encounter, experience, cultural authorities, intellect, habituation, and other
influences. For postmodern spirituality the emphasis is decidedly on the first three or
four—intuition, encounter, experience, emotion—the extra-rational authenticators. Not
surprisingly, it is these that are most heavily involved in apprehension of the numen.
For the postmodern spiritual seeker there is ordinarily a second significant
authenticator as well. A well-founded belief system must conform to a deep, sub-religious
intuition of cosmic goodness and rightness. For the postmodern, rather than defining ethics
within a particular religious/spiritual path, an ethical principle is felt to exist as an
element of a universal, intuitive fabric (although its detailed implementation will always
require discussion and debate; Griffin 1988, p. 17). If a spiritual path is authentic, it
must conform to this universal ethos.
This fact should make evident that, unlike deconstructive postmodernism, spiritual or
constructive postmodernism does not reject the idea of meaningful worldviews.
Postmodern spirituality is, above all, driven by the reactionary worldview that the science,
materialism and individualism of Western Enlightenment cannot address the deepest human
yearnings (Griffin 1988). It seeks instead to restore mystery and connectedness to spiritual
life and practice and has brought with it a robust, renewed interest in the religious mystics
of the past (Griffin 1988, 1990) … with minimal concern for the tradition in which they
might have been situated. What the age of science sought to demystify, postmodern
spirituality seeks to re-mystify. Postmodern spirituality should not be confused with New
Age, for its interest in hearing these individual voices is not so that they may be
syncretized. It is not seeking to form them collectively into a new religion which distorts or
glosses over the distinctives2 of each in an attempt to unify them as if they were a single
voice. On the contrary, postmodern spirituality celebrates the uniqueness of each voice
(Cobb 2002)—and does not pretend that their truth claims are similar or compatible.
In its quest for mystery and authenticity, constructive postmodernism is eager to hear the
voices of those whose worldview has been marginalized by the “grand narrative” of Western
culture; this includes Buddhism. As a consequence thereof, an intriguing strand of
postmodern spirituality has been embraced by Chinese neo-Guoxue (traditional culture) social
activists who seek to renew a sacred, deeply earth- and human-caring ethic as Chinese
progress matures (Tang 2015; Fan and Wang 2012). Nevertheless, the new spirituality remains
a predominantly Western phenomenon.
So where does Buddhism currently stand in relation to this new spirituality? First,
Buddhist ethics are a fairly solid match for the deep, overarching ethic of postmodern
spirituality. But Buddhism struggles to address the other foundational value of postmodern
spirituality—the restoration of mystery, of an ineffable, transcendent domain which has the
capacity to enchant and inspire us; to influence our intentions, thoughts, and actions; and
to interconnect us. We will employ the shorthand, “numen,” for this transcendent domain,
a use of the word devised by Rudolph Otto in his masterwork The Idea of the Holy (1917,
translated into English in 1958). Otto’s description of the numen as mysterium tremendum
is a touchpoint which makes the designation especially relevant for adherents of
postmodern spirituality. By mysterium Otto intended to convey (consistent with the Latin)
both hiddenness and resistance to linguistic description and rational comprehension; by
tremendum he meant that the numen has the capacity to enchant and awe us. (As a
linguistic note, I should make clear that “transcendence” and “numen” are, for the most part, used
interchangeably in this analysis. While the denotations of the two are distinct, it is ordinarily
the case that that which transcends the mundane is also mysterium tremendum. In those
few circumstances in which the denotation needs to be pressed, the analysis will give due
It is the labor of this brief work to make the case that Buddhism possesses a meaningful, if
exceptionally unique, numen (at least in comparison to theistic numena) … and that as a
consequence Buddhism is a path consistent with postmodern spiritual values—and
Gautama Buddha is a mystic appropriate to postmodern spiritual inquiry. The analysis proceeds
by evaluating both canonical Buddhist texts and the statements of Buddhist scholars
concerning transcendence. In dealing with the canonical sources, the analysis assumes a
hermeneutic of doctrinal intent and straightforward linguistic meaning. While there was a late
twentieth century effort to define Buddhism as method alone—as a system of praxis without
doctrinal content, a system whose narratives are more moral parable than history and
metaphysics (e.g. Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism without Beliefs, 1997)—such an approach is
decidedly not the hermeneutic of Eastern Buddhism (Bodhi 1998).
This study begins by examining the question of whether Buddhism contains a
doctrinally supported concept of a numinous. It then moves on to consider whether there is a
de facto, practical numen, even if there is no clear “theological” (or dharmalogical) numen
in some sectors of Buddhism. Interwoven throughout is a brief consideration of whether
the Buddha was a mystic in this context … at least as postmodern spirituality would
define “mystic.” For the purposes of our postmodern evaluation of the Buddha’s praxis,
mysticism may be understood as any direct, extra-rational, extra-sensory prehension of a
numen. Such prehension ordinarily takes the form of altered states of consciousness and
may be either hyper-arousing or hypo-arousing, or something in between … despite the
current academic preference for hypo-arousal as a defining feature of the mystical state.
The question of ontological transcendence in Buddhism
Some Buddhist scholars, both Eastern and Western, assert that the notion of a numen
is conceptually misplaced when applied to Buddhism. It is difficult to trace the precise
historical circumstances which gave rise to these assertions. We can, however, note the
broad cultural conditions at the time these apologetics were offered. The denial of a
numen in Buddhism was chronologically associated with the Buddhist encounter with
the West—an encounter which occurred well after the West was already deeply
entrenched in modernity, in the epoch of science, empiricism and reason. Bhikkhu
Bodhi seems to expressly link the two. While not specifically addressing notions of
transcendence or numen, he considered the Western tendency to desacralize Buddhism
an artifact of the skepticism of modernity (Bodhi 1998). As Armstrong points out,
science was especially loathe to embrace the idea of mysterion—ineffable religion.
(Armstrong 2009) Buddhism, with its lack of a creator-god and very rational
explanation of suffering and human inequality, seemed to the West be more philosophy
than religion. A Buddhism which could be viewed as lacking a numinous in any form
bolstered this understanding. It is worth noting also that a second possible force
propelling a demystifying apologetic was a desire to keep Buddhism utterly distinct
from those numinous-embracing religions which equate numen with deity … and
mystical experience with God-communion and God-awe.
Richard Hayes makes perhaps the strongest attack on the notion of numen as an
attribute of Buddhism (Hayes 1988). He begins by taking Rudolph Otto to task for his use of a
single monk’s emotive description of nirvana in hushed tones as the universal Buddhist
perception of nirvana. The monk depicted nirvana as “bliss unspeakable” (Otto 1917,
English transl. 1958, p. 39). Otto uses this to declare that Buddhism possesses something
sacred and transcendent which inspires awe—in short, a numen. Hayes feels Otto ignored
centuries of classic doctrinal descriptions of nirvana which express it as negation (Hayes
1988, pp. 34, 35). Hayes argues that the idea of “awe,” which permeates Otto’s portrayal of
the numinous, is not applicable to Buddhism. In fact, he argues that there is no
transcendence in Buddhism at all. Hayes may be right in his critique of Otto’s attribution of
mysterium tremendum (at least as Otto envisions it) to nirvana, but for most Theravada and
Mahayana Buddhists Hayes is vastly overstating his claim when he goes on to say:
Buddhist nirvana, then, is seen not as a transcendence but as an acceptance of our
own limitations and frailties and ignorance. Just as nirvana is a conquest of death
only in the sense it is an acceptance of death and therefore a conquest of our fear of
dying, nirvana is also a conquest of ignorance only in the sense that it is an
acceptance of the limitations on our knowledge and therefore a conquest of our fear
of being in the dark. (Hayes 1988, p. 35)
Against this, however, is the fact that for the Buddha and most Buddhists there are
dramatic changes in state associated with liberation, nibbana/nirvana.3 This is true in
both of the major branches of Buddhism, despite the fact that their concepts of nirvana
are quite different. The doctrinal, metaphysical distinction between the two major
divisions of Buddhism regarding nirvana is articulated with exceptional lucidity and
brevity by Makransky:
According to the dualistic pre-Mahayana [Theravada] formulation of samsara and
nirvana … realization of the impermanent, selfless, and suffering nature of the
psychophysical aggregates (skandhas) deconstructs the epistemological conditions
for their being (ignorance and attachment), ultimately culminating in their cessation
and the attainment of an unconditioned state (nirvana) that stands apart from the
conditioned worlds of living beings …
In contrast to this, the Mahayana’s seminal intuition of emptiness (sunyata)
generated a radically different model: the nonduality of samsara and nirvana. …
A Buddha’s nirvana was no longer conceived as an unconditional state that stands
apart from the conditioned world (nirupadhisesa nirvana), but as the perfect,
nondual awareness of the ultimate nature of the world. … [A] Buddha’s nondual
awareness of the dharmadhatu [“as-it-is-ness”—the true nature of the cosmos]
is an inconceivably vast awareness, an awareness that also comprises, in some sense,
a nondual communion with the entire cosmos through its one ultimate nature.
(Makransky 1997, pp. 323, 324)
As Makransky’s words above suggest, Buddhism does, in fact, hold a more substantial
view of enlightenment and nirvana than Hayes alleges. In Theravada Buddhism the key
spiritual gain associated with nibbana is the cessation of samsara, the cycle of rebirth
and death. This cycle the Buddha calls “misery.” (See Dhammapada 153, 154, quoted
below). We may indeed view nibbana as negation, as Hayes suggests; it is the negation
of the misery and cycle of samsara. But this is far more than Hayes intends. For him
nirvana is merely a negation of fear … by developing equanimity regarding the realities
of our own death and ignorance.
The Buddha’s attainment of enlightenment and nibbana in the Pali canon are, at a
minimum, supramundane … and, from the perspective of the common man in just about any
culture, supernatural as well. The Buddha not only ceased universal human cravings, but
also saw his past lives, and saw the future lives of others (Pali canon, Majjhima Nikaya
1.247-249). Walshe notes that within the pages of the canon nibbana is actually
sometimes referred to as “the Supramundane” (Pali lukuttara); he also observes that in this
context it is described as lying “beyond the Three Worlds” of “Sense-Desire, Form and
Formlessness” (Walshe 2005, pp. 40-42).
Walshe notes as well that nibbana is concurrently called “highest bliss” and
“extinction.” Extinction is, of course, much closer to Hayes’ “negation,” but the extinction of
what?—merely of certain fears? Walshe certainly sees far more from his reading of the
canon. And the apparent paradox between “extinction” and “highest bliss,” at least in
part, leads him to write: “Very oddly, in the Pali-English Dictionary, it is said that
‘Nibbana is … not transcendental.’ In fact it is precisely the one and only transcendental
element in Buddhism … It is ineffable” (Walshe 2005, p. 30).4
Harvey also describes the sphere of nibbana as transcendent; he asserts that “Nibbana
is beyond the limitations of both earthly and heavenly existence” (Harvey 1990, p. 38).
And in thus transcending earth and heaven, nibbana is in a way super-transcendent … at
least as compared to transcendence in the many belief systems which treat heaven and
God/gods as the ultimate Other. Ninian Smart distinguishes Theravadin transcendence
from other forms of transcendence by emphasizing that it is a state not a being:
There is no use in Theravadin language for such locutions as ‘Nirvana is all
pervasive or supports the world or is omnipresent.’5 Nirvana is transcendent in that
it is not part of the loka or cosmos. … [A]lthough nirvana is the ultimate it is not the
ultimate Being or God, but rather the ultimate state, to be classified ordinarily in the
Indian tradition as moksa, or salvation or liberation. (Smart, 1996, p. 31)
It is difficult, then, to reject a transcendent, largely ineffable mysterium as not doctrinally
present in the Theravada—even if that mysterium is not deity. Whether the transcendent in
the Theravada includes tremendum is an issue to which we shall return.
The Mahayana situation is somewhat different. Makransky supports his earlier
description of Mahayana distinctives with quotes from several Mahayana sutras. Quoted below
are two passages, both from just one of the sutras from which Makransky includes
excerpts. This sutra is the Avatamsaka Sutra which, according to Cleary, is “perhaps the
richest and most grandiose of all Buddhist scriptures, esteemed by all schools of
Buddhism that are concerned with ultimate liberation” (Cleary 1993, p. 1). In English
translation the sutra is known as the Flower Ornament Sutra.
Avatamsaka Sutra, Book 10, “An Enlightening Being Asks for Clarification”
The realms of beings of the cosmos
Ultimately have no distinction;
Thoroughly knowing all of them
Is the sphere of the enlightened ones.
The minds of all sentient beings
In the past, present, and future,
The enlightened [one], in one instant,
Can thoroughly comprehend.
(Avatamsaka Sutra, Cleary’s translation 1993, p. 311)
Avatamsaka Sutra, Book 37, “The Manifestation of Buddha”
How should great enlightening beings know the sphere of Buddha, who has realized
Thusness and is completely awake? Knowing the spheres of all worlds by means of
unobstructed, unimpeded knowledge is the sphere of Buddha. Knowing the spheres of all
times, all lands, all things, and all beings, the undifferentiated sphere of True Thusness,
the unobstructed sphere of the reality realm, the boundless sphere of absolute truth, the
unquantified sphere of space, and the objectless sphere, is the sphere of Buddha. … Just as
the water of the ocean all comes from the mental power of the king water spirit, so too
does the water of the ocean of omniscience of all buddhas all come from the buddhas’
past vows. The ocean of omniscience is infinite, boundless, inconceivable, and
inexpressible … Buddha instantly knows all things in all times. … By knowing all things are
natureless, a Buddha attains omniscience, and by great compassion continues to save sentient
beings. (Avatamsaka Sutra, Cleary’s translation 1993, pp. 1005, 1006, 1009, 1010)
There is in these passages an assertion of the ultimate lack of differentiation of all things.
And Harvey confirms that in Mahayana thought there is ultimately no subject-object duality
(Harvey 1990); the Mahayana holds what Westerners often treat as a monistic worldview,
although the Mahayana scholar himself would use language which emphasizes the
commonality of non-essence (sunyata), rather than monistic language, to describe his ontology.
But the above passages from the Avatamsaka Sutra also contain a lot more. While
nonduality may characterize the Mahayana accurately and may even lend some legitimacy to
Hayes’ claim that there is no transcendence (in at least some hues of Buddhism), it can
hardly be seen to support the base of his argument. Omniscience, including prophetic
omniscience, sweeping clairvoyance, and the capacity to save sentient beings lie in a
supramundane sphere that is nothing like Hayes’ “acceptance of death” and “acceptance
of the limitations of knowledge.” Yet these omniscient and redemptive powers are the
defining features of Buddhahood and nirvana in the Avatamsaka Sutra.
It is clear then that both major strands of Buddhism view nirvana as something far
beyond Hayes’ articulation. In both the Theravada and the Mahayana, full enlightenment
(liberation, nirvana) creates a radical change in the enlightened one’s state. In the
Theravada this is a state that is transcendentally ineffable. In the Mahayana it is a state of
supranormal knowledge which, while it may not be wholly transcendent, sees the ineffable
monistic reality of all existence. In the Mahayana nirvana is also a state which enables a
supra-normal efficaciousness, dissolving the negative karma of others (known doctrinally
as the transfer of merit).6 And Makransky is surely correct in giving Mahayana nirvana its
full mystical quality by noting that it “comprises, in some sense, a nondual communion
with the entire cosmos through its one ultimate nature” (Makransky 1997, p. 324).
An-atman and the numen
Hoyu Ishida argues on somewhat different grounds from Hayes that Buddhism holds
no numen. Specifically, he focuses on the fact that Otto builds certain arguments on
the assumption of a permanent soul. Otto declared the numen to be Wholly Other in
contrast to the human person/soul; and he also asserted that the capacity to apprehend
the numen is an a priori attribute of the human soul. Ishida finds both notions, a
Wholly Other and an a priori faculty of numinous perception, to be problematic for
much of Buddhism (Ishida 1989). Ishida’s argument with regard to the Wholly Other is
that because Buddhism denies the existence of a soul, there is nothing against which
the numinous can be Other. Similarly, he argues, there can be no a priori knowledge of
the numen imbedded in the soul if there is no soul (expressed in Buddhism as
“an-atman”). Though these claims are clearly related, we will take them one at a time.
From an ontological standpoint Ishida’s objection to a Wholly Other is not far from
Hayes’ … in that both claim “the other” does not exist in Buddhism. But there is an
important nuance. Hayes claims there is no transcendence in Buddhism; Ishida claims that
the only thing of substance in Buddhism is the transcendent, the supramundane
nirvana. Ishida does not deny that there is something which might be ineffable and
inspire awe; rather he denies that the mundane is in any way substantial, or “real” (to
use his term) (Ishida 1989, p. 9). Ishida’s argument asserts a kind of monism through
the insubstantiality of one side of a perceived duality. He writes that “Buddhism
includes in its negation of the soul a corresponding negation of the total objectivity and
separateness of the divine” (Ishida 1989, p. 9). It is tempting to read into this a meaning
of “negation of the separateness of the samsara-bound deities of classic Buddhism.” But
contextually Ishida is simply using Otto’s language to refer to the ultimate.
Furthermore, he does not assert the insubstantiality of the ultimate transcendence (as
Mahayana “emptiness” might do); he speaks of nirvana as an attaining of salvation and
affirms the permanence of this state. His point is not that there is no ultimate reality. It
is rather that there is no “that” (numen), since there is no “this” (mundane realm) from
which to distinguish “that.” He speaks in classic monistic style of a lack of
“subject-object distinction” (Ishida 1989, p. 9). His monism is a special case of monism which does
not easily align with more traditional Buddhist (i.e., Mahayana) monism. The Mahayana
asserts that nirvana and samsara are ultimately one. Both are equally “empty” and the
nature of this unitive ultimate reality is “ineffable” (Harvey 1990, p. 111).
What is interesting about Ishida’s monism-by-lopsided-permanence is that it is
apparently an attempt to formulate a monism which incorporates the Theravada … though
Ishida does not make specific reference to the Theravada. It is difficult to find other
Eastern writers who have considered monistic-versus-dualistic ontology a subject of
much interest, so Ishida stands in lonely territory with his proposition. By contrast we
have already noted the view of many Western scholars—well articulated by Harvey,
Smart, Makransky, and Walshe—who maintain that the Theravada is dualist. Certainly
a robust case can be made that Theravada metaphysics is not consistent with Ishida’s
monistic assertion, since the world of sense/pleasure/suffering—while impermanent—is
not denied true ontological existence (Harvey 1990). But such denial of existence seems
to be the thrust of Ishida’s argument if taken to its logical terminus; impermanence and
non-existence come perilously close to being the same thing. In Theravada Buddhism
nibbana is unconditioned, while the sense-world is conditioned—but both are very real.
Ishida’s second argument, the argument dealing with Otto’s a priori capacity to
perceive the numen, lends itself to a simpler disposition. He attributes to Otto the idea
that “[t]he religious consciousness has its own innate structure and makes use of its
own a priori categories,” as well as the idea that “the numinous feeling signifies the
presence of some particular kind of object, the numinous” (Ishida 1989, p. 5). But in
Otto’s thought the existence of a numen is in no way dependent on the existence of an
a priori capacity to perceive it. As Lopez correctly asserts: “[Otto’s] Idea of the Holy is
not intended as a philosophical treatise proving the existence of the numinous; rather it
is an apology for the intuitive element of religious experience” (Lopez 1979, p. 470).
Ishida seems to misconstrue Otto on this issue; he does not quote any specific passage
from Otto in support of his reading of Otto on the matter.
The best that can be said is that Otto may have conditioned a numinous awareness/
experience on the a priori capacity to perceive it outside of reason and the senses. If
Otto’s a-priori notion is, in fact, doctrinally inconsistent with Buddhism, numinous
experience is thereby excluded, but not the numinous itself. This exclusion would
nevertheless have the effect of making the postmodern expectancy of a felt numen
impossible from a Buddhist perspective. But, while Otto presumes a soul as the source
of an a priori numinous-encountering capacity, there seems to be no credible argument
for rejecting the idea that such a priori capacity could arise within the construct of the
five skandas (or aggregates—the five components of conditioned human existence).
Certainly the capacity to interact with the sense world arises within the skandas (as
does the a priori belief in soulish permanence). In short, Otto’s a priori is not
incompatible with Theravadin Buddhist understandings of the human psyche.
In the Mahayana, the notion of Buddha-nature may be employed fairly easily as the
foundation for an Otto-style instinctual capacity to perceive the numen and even an
innate belief in it. And it appears that D. T. Suzuki does just this in Outlines of
Mahayana Buddhism. (Suzuki 1908, pp. 25-28, 92, 93)7 There seems to be little merit to
Ishida’s claim that Buddhism bars a numen and a numinous experience simply because
it rejects the notion of a permanent soul.
As a final note on the a-priori theory, it is worth observing that Otto’s a-priori argument
was merely his apology for extra-empirical prehension in religious belief and encounter. For
the postmodern there is no need to explain how an extra-rational, extra-sensory capacity to
encounter the numinous is acquired—whether by birth, by growth in meditative practice,
by the working of karmic law as thoughts and desires are purified, or by some other means;
it simply is. In the end, neither the existence nor the perceiving of the numen is dependent
on the a-priori theory.
Experiential transcendence in Buddhism
But there is more to consider which may be deemed transcendent from the perspective
of the experiencer’s prehension. We noted earlier that Walshe treated nibbana as the
only transcendence in the Theravada. And Smart and Harvey would likely agree that it
is the only transcendent object/state in the doctrine of the Theravada (Smart 1996,
Harvey 1990). When these scholars assert that nibbana is the only transcendent article
in Buddhism, I understand them to be speaking ontologically; this sole transcendence
is present in the metaphysics of canon and creed. But the quality of the supramundane,
the sense of transcending ordinary experience, attends more than nibbana itself. The
jhanas serve as a prime example. Harvey describes the four foundational jhanas as
states in which “the mind is blissfully absorbed in rapt concentration on [an] object,
and is insensitive to sense-stimuli … a sort of trance,” though not a “stupor” (Harvey
1990, p. 250). Henepola Gunarantana asserts that when the yogin reaches the last of
these, the “supramundane jhana of the four paths … [he] burns up the defilements
[hindrances to the apprehension of the true state of things] and attains the liberating
experience of the fruits” (Gunaratana 1985, p. 8). This appears to be an experience in
which some of the intuitions of nibbana are coming to fruition, though not fully
realized. The jhanas, then, may be said to be apprehensions of aspects of ultimate reality,
experiences of transcendence, though not final transcendence. This is what I
understand the Buddha to be saying when he, as Gunaratana articulates, “refers to the four
jhanas figuratively (pariyayena) as a kind of nibbana: he calls them immediately visible
nibbana, final nibbana, a factor of nibbana, and nibbana here and now” (Gunaratana
1985, p. 7). Bhikkhu Bodhi writes similarly: “The Buddha calls the jhanas the ‘footsteps
of the Tathagata’ (MN [Majjhima Nikaya] 27.19-22) and shows them to be pre-cursors
of the bliss of Nibbana that lies at the end of the training” (Bodhi 2005, p. 227). These
descriptions imply a somewhat underdeveloped, but nevertheless substantive,
experience of the supramundane. Harvey also describes the jhanas in a way that indicates a
clear, if temporary, break from the mundane world; he depicts them as “qualitatively”
distinct from and “beyond the realm of the sense-desire world”—and thus, if we may
expand on his description, closer to the world of unconditioned ultimate reality
(Harvey 1990, pp.250, 251). Gunarantana, in his work The Path of Serenity and Insight: an
Explanation of the Buddhist Jhānas, also describes some of the intuitions of a second
tier of jhanas that lie beyond the four basic ones—the formless jhanas as they are
called, since the meditative “object” is without form. He describes these intuitions as,
among other things, seeing the reality in others’ minds and possessing the knowledge
of prior births and deaths of others. These are again insights into something that is
more substantial than the mundane and illusionary sense-world (Gunarantana 2005,
pp. 130-133). The jhanas, then, are not merely altered states of consciousness, but
states in which certain intuitions of ultimate reality are gained. Finally, Gunaratana
records that “in the jhana the whole body is suffused with bliss due to pervasion by
rapture, and the pain-faculty then completely ceases, beaten out by the opposition”
(Gunaratana 2005, p. 97). This rapturous, painless, “beyond-the-sense-world,”
nirvanaprecursive state can certainly be considered transcendental experientially.
Many Western scholars have taken a somewhat different approach to the formless
jhanas as supramundane experiences. They regard the advanced jhanas of the Pali
canon as monistic experiences in a dualist system. We have already noted that Ninian
Smart (along with other scholars) treats Theravadin Buddhism as dualist. Yet Smart
contends that the higher jhanas are experiences of non-duality—driving an experiential
Theravadin monism, even though the ontology is dualist. King makes a similar claim in
“Mysticism and Spirituality” (King 2005, p. 315), as does Wainwright in Mysticism: A
Study of Its Nature, Cognitive Value and Moral Implications (Wainwright 1981, p. 228).
Smart is particularly forceful in his assertion that the dualist Theravadin ontology gives
way to monistic experience:
The assent of the jhanas … culminat[e] in the realization of certain formulae such as
‘There is nothing.’ There is no … fascination with any phenomenological object [in these
higher jhanas]. … The contemplative experience … abolishes the distinction between
subject and object: most comprehensively in the Theravada. (Smart 1996, p. 29)
Assuming for the moment that Smart’s portrayal is accurate, his argument implies that
the Buddha and other jhana adepts experienced strongly unitive intuitions in the higher
absorptions. Such intuitions would make the higher jhanas the Eastern companions of
many Christian and Sufi mystical encounters. Western unitive experiences are among the
most profoundly ineffable encounters recorded by the mystics of those traditions … despite
the vigorous dualist ontologies which underlie the traditions. This assertion by Smart
stands on soft ground, however, for Theravadins themselves appear generally to maintain
that the higher absorptions are simply experiential an-atmanism, not monism. Yet even a
true experience of an-atman approaches mysterium tremendum for most of us; it is the
experience of a state incomprehensible to our native state of being, the total absence of “I.”
In recognizing some altered states of consciousness, such as jhana, as transcendental,
it is important to observe that there are degrees of the ultimacy of transcendence in
the mind of the experiencer. The experiencer may well recognize doctrinally that he is
not experiencing the absolute ultimate. Many mystics understand that they are
experiencing a representative or symbol of the ultimate—something much closer to it than
the everyday, mundane world is capable of yielding, but not yet the absolute. The
anonymous, mystic Christian author of The Cloud of Unknowing (fourteenth century)
recognizes that his “cloud” is not God, but “very near to God.” (The Cloud c. 1375, Ch. 4;
referenced as (Anonymous) 2000) Yet these cloud events were perceived as
transcendental, numinous, by the author. It is this experiential prehension that establishes an event as
transcendental in the mind of the one who encounters it. Stated in another way, as a
human experience, the perception of supramundaneness gives rise to the consciousness of
encounter with the transcendent … the ontology (or lack thereof ) of the “transcendent”
object/state seems practically irrelevant from this standpoint. Ontology, I submit, is
relevant primarily to the extent that the experiencer’s belief in the article as transcendent
lends force to the sense of supramundaneness, of mysterium. But such belief need not be
present at all for the altered state of consciousness to be experienced as transcendental.
The fact that the jhanas are not experiences of the final and only ontologically
transcendent state in the Theravada (nibbana), and the concurrent fact that the experiencer knows
they are not, should not impair them as experiences of the supramundane—of something
transcendent, something which approximates or gives the sense of the ultimate. And the
Buddha seems to acknowledge this attribute of the jhanas when he calls them “figurative”
encounters of nibbana (Gunaratana 1985, p. 7).
Furthermore, if the jhanas are indeed experientially numinous, then the Buddha may
be considered a mystic by the standards of postmodern spirituality. The Pali canon
records in the Majjhima Nikaya (1.247-249) the account of Gautama Buddha passing
through each of the four foundational jhanas as an immediate prelude to his
enlightenment. Moreover, the Digha Nikaya of the Pali canon indicate that “[t]hroughout his
career the four jhanas remained ‘his heavenly dwelling’ (dibbavihara) to which he
resorted to live happily here and now.” (Gunaratana 1985, p. 6)
Turning now to the Mahayana, it must once again be approached somewhat differently,
since it is essentially monistic ontologically. Its ontology of monism does not, however,
restrain an everyday, everyman tenacious sense of duality among Mahayanists. This
mundane sensation implies that transcendence can be perceived experientially even though it
may not exist doctrinally/ontologically. Indeed, the radical Buddhahood state of
comprehending the cosmos as unitary is itself likely to give the sense of transcendence; this state
of knowing is clearly supramundane, mysterium. The condition of the human being which
Buddhism at its core seeks to address, indeed counter, is the powerful perception of self as
a permanent ontological structure. The strong illusion of enduring self leads to the
perception of the True Monistic Condition of the Cosmos as Other. This Other transcends
the adherent’s normal-experience world, just as the jhanas transcend the Theravadin’s
normal-experience world. Once the True Monistic Condition of the Cosmos is actually
apprehended it is no longer Other. But it is altogether Other on the journey … until the
very last step at the summit. And when the Monistic Cosmos ceases to be Other it is still
initially transcendent, wholly beyond the mundane world. Only with the familiarity of
time does it cease to be transcendental experientially, if at all. In Mahayana thought this is
the nirvana which Gautama Buddha reached, the summit of a mystical journey.
Vicarious transcendence in Buddhism
There is yet another category of experiences which may be classified as possessing
transcendence. These are experiences which the experiencer may not consider transcendent at all, but
which to the common adherent are transcendent. The Theravada canon records many
encounters of the Buddha and some of his closest monks with gods/devas.8 Perhaps the most
well-known is the encounter of the Buddha with Brahma Sahampati of the Brahma class of
gods (the highest class). Brahma Sahampati was concerned that the Buddha was considering
a non-teaching life and entreated him to share his enlightenment with the world so others
might also walk the path to liberation (Harvey 1990, p. 22). In these encounters with gods,
the Buddha is the spiritually superior being whether the gods visit him or he visits them. But
regardless of who held the superior position spiritually or who initiated the encounter, from
the perspective of the vast majority of Theravadin Buddhists (who approach these accounts
with an historical-literal hermeneutic) these are experiences of something that is clearly
supramundane … the Buddhist theology that places the gods in samsara notwithstanding.
The interactions with the gods may have been mundane for the Buddha, but to the lay
Theravadin these canonized experiences are transcendent and undoubtedly help authenticate the
Buddha’s direct knowledge of true nature of the universe—its metaphysics and cosmology. In
sum, there is in the Theravada that which is doctrinally transcendent and thus mysterium,
that which is experientially supramundane and thus mysterium, and that which is recorded
as sacred and vicariously sensed as supramundane and thus mysterium.
In the Mahayana, with its monistic worldview, it is primarily the vicarious
transcendent that gives substance to Gautama Buddha’s attainments of enlightenment and
nirvana as direct encounters of the “ultimate” state … despite the fact that doctrinally
there is no clean transcendence. For Mahayana aspirants, the Buddha’s attainments
profoundly transcend their own experience, their mundane state of being. In the
Mahayana the ultimate state, which was achieved by Gautama Buddha, includes: 1) seeing
beyond the impression of duality to the true Monistic Condition of the Cosmos, 2) a
vast omniscience that accompanies this insight, and 3) powerful supernormal
redemptive capacity to liberate others from that which hinders their attainment of nirvana. All
aspects of this state are vicariously transcendent.
Tremendum in Buddhist experience
We move now to the question of whether tremendum may be said to be present in
Buddhism and to have been experienced by the Buddha. Hayes, we have noted, asserts
that there is nothing of awe in Buddhism. If this be so then the widely held
understanding of Dhammapada 153 and 154 as the Buddha’s words upon reaching enlightenment
is surely in error. It appears he experienced a deep sense of emotive release, or as
Harvey describes it, “joyful exaltation,” at the Enlightenment. (Harvey 1990, p. 22)
Dhammapada 153, 154 reads:
I ran through samsara, with its many rebirths,
Searching for, but not finding, the house-builder.
Misery is birth again and again.
House-builder, you are seen!
The house you shall not build again!
Broken are your rafters, all,
Your roof beam destroyed.
Freedom from samsara has the mind attained,
To the end of cravings has it come.
(John Ross Carter & Mahinda Palihawadana translation)
The Buddha’s words convey an impression of gentle euphoria, awe, at the tranquility
of this emancipation from samsara. Further, if Henepola Gunaratana’s understanding of
the Digha Nikaya,9 which we considered earlier, is correct, it is hard not to see in the
Buddha’s frequent return to the jhanas during his post-enlightenment career a powerful
emotive quality of the joy of the supramundane. According to Gunaratana these returns
were the fully enlightened Buddha’s “‘heavenly dwelling’ (dibbavihara) to which he
resorted to live happily here and now” (Gunaratana 1985, p. 6). Gunaratana and
Bhikkhu Bodhi also understand the Pali canon to refer to nibbana and the jhanas at times
as “bliss” and “rapture.” (Gunaratana 1985, p. 97; Bodhi 2005, p. 227) Walshe also, in
the Introduction to The Long Discourses of the Buddha: a Translation of the Digha
Nikaya, notes that “at Dhammapada 204 and elsewhere [nibbana] is called ‘highest
bliss’” (Walshe 2005, p. 30). The joy of the supramundane surely approaches
tremendum if it is not its precise equivalent.
Hayes discards the tremendum because he believes there is no ontological
transcendence in Buddhism … and thus nothing to inspire awe, bliss, euphoria. More often the
tremendum is rejected as non-Buddhist because Otto described the tremendum, in part,
as “creature-feeling” (Otto 1917, English transl. 1958, pp. 8-10). Of course, there can be
no creature (and presumably no creature-feeling) if there is no creator—a postulate
Buddhism maintains. But it takes only a little imagination to modify Otto slightly or to
emphasize other aspects of Otto’s definition to find applicability in Buddhism. No
doubt Otto can be criticized for an overly Western perspective—but, like the theories
of any notable thinker, due diligence rests in fleshing out the theory where he has not
given it sufficient applicative thought. Otto also describes tremendum as “a depreciation
of the subject in his own eyes [vis-à-vis the] object” [italics his] (Otto 1917, English
transl 1958, p. 11). Detached from the notions of creature and creator as subject and
object, this could certainly apply in Mahayana Buddhism to a devaluation of the
practitioner’s sensation of his existence as an independent entity in contrast to his mystical
intuition of the vast monistic reality. And a Theravadin may experience tremendum in
some of the other ways in which Otto describes it. Otto portrays tremendum as a sense
of intense valuation of the numen in contrast to the mundane; it is a “feeling of being
… dust and ashes and nothingness;” it is “consciousness of being conditioned” [italics
his] (Otto 1917, English transl. 1958, pp. 15, 20). These serve as an apt description of
the an-atman experience of the formless jhanas. The Theravadin may taste his “dust
and ashes and nothingness” (impermanence) and feel the “consciousness of being
conditioned,” in contrast to the greatness of the permanent and unconditioned nibbana.
We should observe in passing that there is a very distinct conceptual separation
between East and West on the issue of ultimate liberation—it is a separation which requires
that tremendum feelings be understood somewhat differently in an Eastern context. In the
monotheisms the foundational ontological outlook prevents an ultimate, wholesale,
eternal and actual merging with the numen. Therefore, in the West, one may, even in the final
salvific state, experience tremendum in the presence of the numen. By contrast, in the
East (in both Hinduism and Buddhism), becoming part of the numen is the final salvific
state. There can be no tremendum in this ultimate liberated state. But short of that state,
the Hindu and the Buddhist alike are able to experience the awe of that which they still
work to achieve and which they can only glimpse in mystical vision.
Ultimately what Otto is getting at is an affective impact from the recognition of
mysterium, from encountering the supramundane. Exhilaration, awe, in the presence of the
profoundly extraordinary is an entirely expected psychological response. There is
nothing in Buddhism to discourage such a response; it is merely the clinging to such an
emotion that the Buddha would have found a hindrance. In the Theravada, as we have
seen, awe appears to have been the Buddha’s reaction to reaching the supramundane,
ineffable nibbana of the now.
The Mahayana possesses its own ineffable pinnacle. Its monistic view of samsara and
nirvana as ultimately undifferentiated is certainly ineffable, but is it awe-inspiring or
bliss-inspiring as a result? Does it carry tremendum when fully apprehended? D. T.
Suzuki certainly understood it to be such and discusses it at length in Outlines of
Mahayana Buddhism. He first notes that “nirvana” is a deeply textured word in the
Mahayana. He writes that, among other meanings: “it signifies … a state of
consciousness that follows from the recognition of the presence of the Dharmakaya10” (Suzuki
1908, p. 342). Suzuki sees bliss unmistakably associated with this full enlightenment,
this recognition of the Dharmakaya:
In order to reach the highest truth we must plunge our whole being into a region
where absolute darkness defying the light of intellect is supposed to prevail. … [T]he
only way that leads us to the final pacification of the heart-yearnings is to go beyond
the horizons of limiting reason and resort to faith … And by faith I mean Prajna
(wisdom), supramundane knowledge, that comes direct from the intelligence-essence of the
Dharmakaya. A mind, so tired in vainly searching after truth and bliss in the verbiage
of philosophy … finds itself here completely rested … - whence this is, it does not
question, being so filled with supramundane blessings which alone are left. Buddhism calls
this exalted spiritual state Nirvana … The illumination thus gained in our
consciousness constitutes the so-called parinispana [perfected true nature], the most perfect
knowledge, that leads to Nirvana, final salvation and eternal bliss. (Suzuki, pp. 91-94)
Thus it is that, while tremendum may not accompany every apprehension of the
transcendent (whether ontological, experiential, or vicarious) in Buddhism, it appears that
in much, if not most of such experiences, it is present nonetheless.
Summary and conclusion
I have sought to demonstrate that both the Theravada and the Mahayana possess states
which may rightly be understood and apprehended as numinous. I employed Hayes’ and
Ishida’s counterarguments as a kind of base camp from which to start the climb toward
that conclusion. Their concerns provided a resistive pedestal on which to build our
inquiry of what Buddhism has historically held ontologically … and, perhaps more
importantly, what Buddhism contains that might direct us to mysterium tremendum as a
functional reality embedded in the intersection of normal human psychological tendencies
with Buddhist teaching and practice. Numinous awareness, I have maintained, is more
about impression and non-creedal epistemic influences than formal ontology. Given this
backdrop, I do not feel we should have any difficulty in locating a numen in Buddhism.
And once such a peak has been identified, the panorama opens also on the Buddha’s
jhana experiences as mysticism … at least as most postmodern spiritual seekers would
These two elements of enchantment in Buddhism, a numen and a mystic
exemplar—complemented by Buddhism’s deep ethical stance—make Buddhism ripe for postmodern
spiritual inquiry. Yet, outside of its ethical dimension, Buddhism seems to have gotten
little traction within Western postmodern spirituality. It core doctrines have not yet found
fertile ground among postmoderns. This trend appears to hold to some extent even where
constructive postmodernism has garnered devotees in the East (Fan and Wang 2012; Tang
2015).11 A minor exception is the interest in Buddhism evident among some
Whiteheadian theologian-philosophers who also identify as postmodern; they view Buddhist
doctrine as a religious instantiation of process-theory (Griffin 1990, Cobb 2012). But their
reflections are generally far too heady and abstruse for everyday postmodern spiritual
seekers. The short of the matter is that Buddhism’s foundational metaphysical and
doctrinal essence has not been given much consideration within vernacular postmodern
spirituality. This is likely the result, in part at least, of the twentieth-century apologetic efforts to
extract Buddhism from the domains of numinous religion and mysticism, indeed, to
desacralize it altogether (Cobb 2002).12 The demystifying apologia, which helped
Buddhism find its place in the modern West, may now be hindering it from taking a seat
at the open table of postmodern spirituality. From an Eastern perspective, a Western
spirituality which is ready to comprehend Buddhism as sacred tradition, including its
substantive epistemic commitments, is a West more capable of embracing the fullness of
Buddhist dharma than the West of modernity was able to do.
1Early texts articulating the idea of a postmodern spirituality, such as David Ray
Griffin’s Spirituality and Society: Postmodern Visions, began appearing in the late 1980’s,
but the groundswell seems to have in the 1990s (Benedikter & Molz, 55-62). In his
work, Griffin correctly labeled deconstructive postmodernism,
“ultramodernism”—given its rejection of the possibility of coherent worldviews and its tendencies toward
nihilism and extreme relativism. (Griffin, x)
2“Distinctives” is used to describe the features (in this case doctrines and worldview)
which distinguish a belief system from other related religious forms, primarily
Theravada Buddhism in this case.
3My convention in this paper assumes that nirvana may now be treated as an English
word, but that nibbana is not sufficiently well-known to have become an English word.
4For students of Kant, Walshe’s use of “transcendental” deviates from Kantian usage.
Kant, who sought to distinguish “transcendent” and “transcendental,” would have used
“transcendent” in this context. Transcendence, transcendent, and transcendental—the
use of these terms is complex and has sparked considerable discourse over the years. In
this discussion, I will use “transcendent” and “transcendental” in what I understand to
be their Kantian senses: “[Kant] set the term transcendental in opposition to the term
transcendent, the latter meaning ‘that, which goes beyond’ (transcends) any possible
knowledge of a human being. … [He] equated transcendental with that which is
[related to] the subject's faculty of cognition.” (New World Encyclopedia, http://
www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Transcendence_%28philosophy%29). By this I
understand “transcendent” to refer to the (presumed) ontological reality of some thing
or state beyond human comprehension (supramundane and unknowable), while
“transcendental” is applied to experiences in which one apprehends the supramundane and
unknowable in a non-rational and subjective way. “Transcendence” is used to mean the
quality of being transcendent, not the quality of being transcendental.
5Smart implies, however, that these descriptions/attributes might be acceptable in the
6Transfer of merit is also prominent in the Theravada, though it appears to be primarily
a current-life activity (rather than an activity in/of/from nibbana). (Harvey, pp. 42-44)
7Suzuki does not use the term “Buddha-nature.” However, his understanding is that
humanity’s religious impulse is inherent in our nature and when stripped of illusions is
a pure thing which inherently sees ultimate reality. And the fact that this approach
stems from the notion of Buddha-nature is not lost on other Buddhist scholars. See, for
example, Dharmachāri Nāgapriya, “Poisoned Pen Letters? D.T. Suzuki’s
Communication of Zen to the West.” Western Buddhist Review. Vol 5 (Oct 2010), p. 7 in PDF.
8See Samyutta Nikaya I.1.1-II.1.8 for a specific example. See also the Parabhava Sutta
for an excellent example of gods visiting the Buddha to learn from him
9He cites “DN 3-220” which appears to be a defective citation—possibly 3:220?
cosmos,” “unity-of-all-things body” are some of the suggestions for English translation.
minimizing its religious, epistemic distinctives. This ethical-social emphasis is
unquestionably evident in Fan and Wang’s treatment of constructive postmodernism in China.
12While Cobb acknowledges this point, he tends to attribute the demand for
transcendence to the West’s theistic roots. But I am unconvinced. Postmodern spirituality is far
more a reaction to scientism’s demystification of life and cosmos, than its atheism.
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