What is Transcendence?

Question: Dear Sir, hope the Clarity Sessions are going great. I plan to join the sessions one of these days if I can.

I am reading a book named ‘the philosophy of the Buddha’ to understand the Buddhist thought. I found this book quite enriching in its academic rigor. However as Frank Herbert says, “Truth sometimes suffers on account of over-analysis.” Although this book is written by a Western thinker, it is fair, unbiased, thorough and adequately covers the doctrines. I found this book to be worth my time.
There is another book called “Buddha’s way in Darwin’s world.”

Dear Sir,

You were right about waiting for thoughts to set in, but I am young and a tad impatient (maybe stupid!) and hence it is after sometime that I have more clarity on what I was trying to say in my last few mails. I had also sent you a write up on Evolutionary Biology but perhaps that is limited. Here is what I wanted to demonstrate  from biology and basic neurobiology about human beings, the Self and Buddhism:

Mirror neurons and the Self

Mirror neurons were curiously discovered in primates when the experimenter was having an ice-cream and saw that the primate experienced the same sensations as he did (on the electric monitor). We feel other people’s pain because of the cluster of neurons and the reason we know it is someone else’s pain and not our own, because we have motor signals coming from our body. Many brain biologists have linked this to the eastern concept of unity. However, this is simplified, I am leading this to my earlier argument about material self where I was having doubts.

Material self

Human beings have a neo-cortex that makes them far more intelligent than other species and some people have called this the ‘material basis of humanity’, something I cannot disagree with. For  instance, scientifically I know that if the wiring connecting my fusiform gyrus breaks I will not recognize the emotions I have in respect to people’s faces. Further there are people who see numbers in colour (a unique thing a person can be born with). This is not a mental disorder, it is because their brains have some cross wiring between the ‘number’ and ‘colour’ modules (artists suffer from this far more than others, some neurologists believe that this is the source of them being able to integrate and appreciate metaphors). Further there are the genetic and epigenetic influences that can affect how a person is. For instance, a gene may predispose the person to aggression etc.

The reason I talk about the material self is because it was one of the things that kept popping in my head when I thought about the ‘self’ concept.

More brain tests and why I have come to appreciate the greatness of Buddha.

So far I have talked about materiality and mirror neurons and the material basis of everything as if to say that our thoughts do not change the world. I have some material proof that our thoughts do change the way we are and in fact in extreme cases affect our brain plasticity (our brain was thought to be a static organ that does not change after infancy but this belief is changing in the scientific community).

Consider a classic left brain- right brain experiment. For simplicity, I am not going into the experimental details of the case. A person whose left side is anesthetized is asked what they want from life and then the same person is asked the same thing when the right side is anesthetized. Wonder of wonders is that there are two different answers. In fact people suffering from strokes have had a case of the “phantom hand” where one hand is buttoning a shirt and the other one unbuttons.

Scientists opine that this is on account of the fact that one side of the brain wants to latch tags and meaning and hence organizes things into logical tranches and adds ‘belief systems’, the other has other wants which are more basic and do not follow the interpretation that one side has made(the hypothesis is that the right brain links to emotional centers and the left one gives overall meaning and motor control, though this is only a hypothesis).

Could this be a source of conflict? Could our blanket beliefs, judgments etc that help us survive be the source of our misgivings and sufferings, because thoughts and systems change and there is constant conflict even in the head. Our brains, our feelings are impulses of the pleasure and pain centers, that is not to say there is no concept of the eternal or at least long lasting, musicians who practice a certain form are known to rewire their brains in a way that they can play better and coordinate their movements better yet, startlingly and starkly our thoughts are changing the way we perceive the world and our pleasures and pains and conflicts.

What I am implying is that for me this is akin to ‘we are our thoughts and if we live by our thoughts we are in a constant circle of suffering: the noble truth of suffering’. Once we let go of things like ‘purpose’, ‘overarching goals’, there is no ‘meaning or blanket statements’. It is Nibhannata that Buddha talks about. I understand we are our thoughts and I appreciate it. I was saddened by reading the Sutta Pitaka and the ‘moral’ advice. Once I ignored that book, but I find myself in agreement to a lot of the teachings of Buddha. For instance I can understand that once one ‘let go’ of thoughts and beliefs, once one ‘let go’ of overarching purposes, there is no need for aggression and violence. Aggression is triggered out of ‘want’. This can be scientifically proven.

Sir, you once told me that one must be careful about how one thinks because every thought has a possibility of being realized or coming true in some way or the other, the line sort of comes back to me.

Answer: This issue of the relation of consciousness to the material body took me ten years back to a day when I was in a temple at Varanasi. I had noted down something I saw and the piece of paper is still in my wallet. Here is a translation:

– There the eye does not go, nor speech, nor mind. We do not know That, we do not understand.

– That which speech cannot talk of, but which gives power to speech to talk: know that alone to be the Brahman.

– That which cannot be thought by mind, but by which, they say, mind is able to think: know that alone to be the Brahman.

– That which is not seen by the eye, but by which the eye is able to see: know that alone to be the Brahman

– That which cannot be heard by the ear, but by which the ear is able to hear: know that alone to be Brahman

– That which none breathes with the breath, but by which breath is in–breathed: know that alone to be the Brahman

Ken Upanishad it is. According to the Vedic Sages the mind in its ordinary state is only another material sense organ. This mind is limited, but when it becomes illumined by the light of the Cosmic Intelligence, or the ‘mind of the mind’, then it is able to apprehend the First Cause or That which stands behind all external activities.

There is indeed a great material basis to the self. The basis is that the material (the body) is the crucible in which the dance of consciousness takes place. Without the body, consciousness itself has no instrument for its own manifestation. Without the material body, consciousness itself moves into an unexpressed state. Hence, all the experiments about neurons etc. rightly conclude that with/without such and such neurons, such and such aspects of consciousness will be impacted. After all, why can higher consciousness manifest itself only in man and not animal? The answer is biological. In an animal, the biological(material- neurons etc) preparation for the revelation of consciousness is very rudimentary.

We would, however, do well to remember that the neuron is merely the SEAT of consciousness, and NOT consciousness itself. Without the seat, the consciousness will shrink and become unmanifest. However, merely the presence of seat does not guarantee the presence of the seated. In the language of the mystics, it would be a tragedy to worship the throne of the king and forget the king himself! And indeed, the movement from neuron to awareness is the movement from science to mysticism.

Whoever said that the body is the temple of God was saying quite aptly.

Regarding conflict created by the hard-wiring of the brain, our minds are deeply conditioned by evolution, experience and knowledge. All such hard-wiring is part of the falsehood of ego. However, the mind also has the capacity to look at itself and move beyond all kinds of conditioning- even genetic. Stillness is the route.

An alert mind that gives a fresh, spontaneous response to any stimulus is a mind that has beaten even evolution. Man – partly as a result of Darwinian evolution itself- has come to a stage where it is possible for him to look sharply at himself. When he looks sharply, very sharply, he is also able to see what prevents him from looking more sharply. Conditioning, even evolutionary conditioning (genetic aggression etc.), is thus caught and dropped. Stillness, lets repeat, is the climate in which sharp looking – just looking- becomes possible.

Question: Thanks Sir,

I agree with those words completely. It is not that by materiality I imply I do not believe in miracles, just that I do not believe in the ‘divine’ kind as they are projected to be. I merely wanted to point out that we are also our body and that if we reject the body, we also reject a part of us. That being said, the mind may not be a blank slate but it is a slate nevertheless and it has unwritten chapters in terms of millions of neurons and it has elegant plasticity: musicians have certain arrangements that are unique to them, consciousness may be ‘awareness about being aware’ and it may reside in the body and in neurons but that does not mean it is the body.

Einstein for instance was a mystic. His metaphysics was the physics of the mysterious which he called beautiful and he said that when one truly can comprehend the elegance of the order of things and natural laws one cannot but be wowed by this cosmic truth.

The mind can comprehend its own limitations. It can look at its own workings. It is capable of knowledge that may seem in ways counter intuitive to evolutionary survival. It is alive above and beyond its own material basis.

I had always wondered what a person like you would believe in and I had guessed it would be something like this. It is nice to read this and I appreciate you sharing it with me.

Question: Readings:

Verses from the Ken, Katha, Isha, Brahadaaranyaka, Chhandogya and Svetasvatara Upanishads.


1. Neither ignorance nor knowledge is the way.

2. To know ignorance as ignorance and knowledge as knowledge is the beginning of transcendence.

3. What is the root of a mortal man?

4. Fact and truth, reality and understanding.

5. It is not what is known by the mind, it is what lets the mind know.

6. Seeing desire is the cessation of activity and the beginning of action.

7. Intelligence and learning do not take there.

8. It is not to be reached by another man’s teaching, and it cannot be reached without another man’s words.

9. This is full, that is full. When fullness is taken away from fullness, fullness remains !

Dear Sir,

I really find the first two points in this discussion very interesting:

1. Neither ignorance nor knowledge is the way.

2. To know ignorance as ignorance and knowledge as knowledge is the beginning of transcendence.

I wish I could know more about these two. I seem to grasp this in some way but then I do not…

Answer: There are two ways of interpreting these points:

First way:

1. Wisdom is higher than both ignorance and knowledge. The sage says, “Those who wallow in ignorance fall into a deep well. Those who delight in knowledge fall into an abyss yet deeper.” Wisdom here means the one coming from no-mind.

2. Transcendence is the wisdom that sees ignorance as ignorance, and knowledge as knowledge.


1. Ignorance is called avidya in the Upanishads. Knowledge is vidya.
Avidya too is knowledge, but that of worldly things.
Real knowledge is vidya, dealing only with Brahm.
The way is to be proficient in both of these, and not one of these alone.

One has to be adept in this world(avidya) and the other world(vidya).

2. The wise man understands the right places of vidya and avidya and gives both of them due importance.

-Based on my interactions on various e-forums.

Dated: 18th May,’11


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