The format of debate shifts speakers away from their most-familiar definitions, to make the contrast between themselves and their opponents clear. Some percentage of the Buddhist canon is stated in the form of debate, and the attention of modern scholars tends to be directed to those debates more than to material of other kinds, for the simple reason that the contrast makes both sides easier to "see". I'm now turning to an article that Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote criticizing Prof. Asanga Tilakaratne for the same simple reason: the contest draws Bhikkhu Bodhi into making many statements of his own convictions to delineate what his own philosophy is (in contrast to something it is not).
In some ways, B.B.'s thematic direction (writing in 1996) shows a striking continuity with his article of fully 20 years prior (written in 1976, discussed in a prior article). However, he is now stating his case much more clearly, and he links his argument to his preferred primary sources more directly.
Tilakaratne has argued that nirvana is not transcendental (lit. "non-transcendental"). In Theravāda Buddhism, this claim could be very controversial, or not controversial at all, depending on how the word transcendental is defined. We should be clear that the English word "transcend" is no more magical than "ascend" or "descend". Our prefix "trans-" does not lend anything supernatural to the meaning of "transact", nor "transfix"; nevertheless, this one word "transcendent" seems to conjure up connotations that cannot be explained by the combination of the word's parts.
B.B. and Tilakaratne agree inasmuch as they both reject the possibility that Buddhism supports the type(s) of transcendence found in (i) [mono-]theism, (ii) Hindu mysticism, non-dualism, monism, and so on. They also reject (iii) attempts to impose some of these ("non-dualistic") notions onto Buddhism, in books that seemed important at the time (e.g., T.R.V. Murti's theories --and, yes, I'm just barely old enough to have read Murti's work while I was in university). However, B.B. disagrees with Tilakaratne on transcendence in certain other senses of the term.
The cloud hanging over this issue derives from Immanuel Kant (d. 1804), John Locke (d. 1704) and Baruch Spinoza (d. 1677) first and foremost --sources that are neither ancient nor Asian (nor especially relevant to Buddhism).
The idea that the transcendent is "the opposite of" the immanent is very European (and very Judeo-Christian) in its origin and function. The profound dread surrounding the opposition of the transcendent to the immanent derives entirely from the English words involved (and the German, Latin, etc.) --which is to say, they do not result from any difficulties in translating the Pali, and don't have obvious correlates in Pali vocabulary.
I don't mean to state any of this in an overly harsh or castigating manner, however, if I did not frankly state this problem's European "heritage", there would be a misleading impression that this (modern) debate about transcendence-vs.-immanence is continuous with a debate found in the canon. Without the European template, would this debate be important in Buddhist philosophy at all? Well, B.B. does find a foothold for the transcendental debate in a short passage found in the post-canonical Visuddhimagga --and I think that B.B.'s article tries to understate the influence that this source (p. 507-509, PTS ed.) has on his thinking on the subject. Very reasonably, B.B. acknowledges that it is post-canonical, reflecting a later period of Buddhist philosophy, and (thus) is not really authoritative (nor definitive) in the same way as (canonical) primary sources. As you'd expect, the actual debate in the Visuddhimagga's (medieval Sinhalese) context has almost nothing in common with the "transcendental" categories of Europe in general (nor Spinoza in specific); there's a generalized mismatch of cultural assumptions.
If you're reading the Pali canon directly, the answer to the problem of what nirvana "is" primarily has to be understood in relation to (and as the result of) a form of monastic training --and, on this subject, we have a huge quantity of repetitive instructions and exhortations in the ancient texts. Working from these sources, the simplest definition of nirvana would be "the result of this monastic training, if correctly performed/achieved" --and, in a practical sense, it would rarely be necessary to say more than that. However, more nuanced definitions do arise in specific contexts, for specific purposes; for example, the Buddhist notion of nirvana is sometimes contrasted to another religion's notion in the context of debate. Whereas the instructional materials are almost consistent to a fault (and are hardly lacking in repetition) there is more diversity in those context-specific definitions that seem to focus on one aspect or another, to prove one point or another. Those materials are produced by debate, and they certainly give us the material for yet more debate in the centuries to come.
For the moment, my point is merely that this whole question of transcendence devolves from Europe's centuries of wrestling with the question of the immanence of god, and it been applied to Buddhism with an unseemly substitution of nirvana for god and an expectation of profound results.
Have the results been profound? Well, we have this interesting "discourse" between B.B. and Tilakaratne, at least. I don't think that any of the followers of Spinoza today consider Theravāda Buddhism a challenge to their philosophy, nor, vice-versa, do any Theravāda Buddhists respond to Spinozism as a challenge. The interaction between these things is fairly artificial and academic, whereas other (ongoing) clashes between Buddhism and its detractors (Islamic, Hindu, Christian, Communist, etc.) are very palpable --and demonstrated through the burning of books or, sometimes, people.
Tilakaratne's assertion is that merely-empirical reality is the domain of both saṃsāra and nirvana; in other words, nirvana is part of our experience of reality and is not something completely different from it. What would be meant by "completely different" here? It would be something transcendent to the mundane reality, and impossible to perceive (or comprehend) through empirical means for that same reason.
In the European tradition, this sort of transcendental thing is often said to be god, despite the total lack of resemblance to what you'll find in the Old Testament, and the lack of any connection to revelation in the Biblical sense. Western transcendentalism leans more toward deism than anthropomorphic theism (although many Christian philosophers have struggled to make the two parts fit together --along with Sufi poets and Jewish philosophers, I suppose). Among the causes for papal censorship here is this: we have no reason to imagine the supreme abstraction on the other side of the transcendental divide must be a kindly benefactor (with a beard) rather than a mere metaphysical substance. Or, even if the philosophers decide to call this abstraction a god, it could be an indifferent god, or even a malicious one. For European intellectuals of the last 300 years, this was not a minor source of consternation, nor a minor source of inspiration: thousands of pages have been filled with speculations expanding on Spinoza's theme. Notably, in Schopenhauer's case, what awaits our discovery on the other side of the veil is the cruelty of nature in its myriad expressions of "The Will" (and this is, in large part, a hunger to survive and procreate, although, reciprocally, Schopenhauer ends up valorizing kindness, compassion, and asceticism as a sort of antithesis to the almighty and indifferent "Will"). The short-lived religion of Robespierre in France is another significant example, whereby deism was disconnected from the Biblical tradition (although, apparently, it didn't run far after being let off of the leash).
Returning to our Sri Lankan discourse: what B.B. does not tell us is the qualitative difference between the types of text (within the canon) that the two sides use to support their respective views of nirvana. Tilakaratne can appeal to a range of pragmatic texts (including direct instructions to monks, from the Buddha, as to how nirvana is to be attained, and direct descriptions of how the Buddha himself attained it, etc.) whereas B.B.'s preferred sources are more poetic. In this, also, B.B. is following the direction of the aforementioned commentarial debate (Vsm 507-509); it relies on (and concludes with) poetic hyperbole quoted from the Itivuttaka and the Udāna.
This weakens B.B.'s position, because it entails that Tilakaratne's explanation does not contradict the sources B.B. cites, but can instead accept them as mere poetry. Conversely, B.B.'s treatment of the poetic sources as definitive (or, at least, definitively inspirational) raises the question of why these sources he prefers differ so sharply from the large bulk of pragmatic texts (at least entailing the need for some further explanation).
Tilakaratne's case is favored by the working assumption that (1) precise sets of instructions make sense because they're written precisely, whereas (2) devotional poetry is imprecise (and expressive, emotive, etc.) because it is not even attempting to provide the same degree of precision. The reverse assumption is difficult to argue for: why would the canon's short, vague, poetic statements be more definitive than long, repetitive, detailed lectures and dialogues? If the pragmatic argument doesn't create a conflict between the two, this is itself an advantage over a transcendentalist argument that does bring the two genres into contradiction.
I infer that B.B. is aware of this issue, as he comments that the Buddha's descriptions of nirvana, "…fit into either of two distinct moulds. One stresses Nibbāna as the most desirable goal of all: blissful, peaceful, sublime, liberative, secure, the cessation of all suffering. The other highlights the practical inner work that must be undertaken to attain release from suffering; Nibbāna then becomes [described as] the destruction of craving, the eradication of defilements, [and] the relinquishment of all attachment." (p. 171) What B.B. has here called two moulds corresponds to the distinction I've drawn between (i) poetic declarations (exalting nirvana as "blissful, peaceful, sublime", etc.) and (ii) the more pragmatic prose (offering instructions, definitions and the details of the "inner work" to be done). Of course, B.B. uses terms that reflect the greater importance that he places on the first of the two "moulds", and I use terms that reflect my own biases.
The first text cited by B.B. in support of his version of transcendence is stated as MN (PTS) vol. I, p. 435–7. This is the Mahā-Māluṅkya-suttanta. The second text is AN PTS vol V, p. 7–10. This is the Samādhi-suttanta situated within the Ānisaŋsa-vagga.
Bodhi cites both of these on p. 166, and says of them collectively, "These suttas suggest that Nibbāna is indeed a distinct object of knowledge on the basis of which the defilements are destroyed and to which the arahant has special access in an extraordinary sphere of contemplation that the ordinary person can hardly think of without bafflement."
I must ask, (1) do these two cited texts support B.B.'s argument, and (2) even if so, does the argument really challenge Tilakaratne's position? We would need to put a great deal of emphasis on the "extraordinary sphere of contemplation" for this line of inquiry to be incompatible with Tilakaratne's position. The reader may also want to know if (3) these sources fit into my own (prejudicial) set of categories, suggesting something of an opposition between the poetic and prosaic sources.
Last things first: this pair of sources that B.B. has cited are prosaic and explanatory texts (unlike B.B.'s preferred descriptions of nirvana in short poems, found in the KN's Sutta Nipata, the aforementioned Udāna, and so on). So, in this case, my warning does not apply, and I do not evaluate these citations in terms of poetic hyperbole.
I have grave doubts, however, as to the other two questions.
The particular Samādhi-suttanta cited by B.B. seems to offer a conclusion that is not at all transcendental (neither in the sense defined by B.B. in this same essay, nor in the broader European tradition alluded to above). For the monk who has acquired the correct mental praxis (we are told) there is neither the consciousness of this world in this world, nor is there consciousness of another world in another world, and yet there is nevertheless consciousness (na idhaloke idhalokasaññī assa, na paraloke paralokasaññī assa, saññī ca pana assāti). That's an interesting philosophy, but it does not support the specific claim that B.B. attributes to the passage in any way whatsoever (i.e., there is no clear connection to B.B.'s assertion, "These suttas suggest that Nibbāna is…", quoted in full above).
The logic of the thing follows a standard (Theravāda) "neither/nor" pattern: the text in full starts with the four material elements, and proceeds through space, thought, etc., telling us the same thing about each (i.e., that there is no consciousness in it) --however, the text does not counterpose anything else/beyond. The only thing counterposed is consciousness itself.
The text cited offers no contrast to anything transcending the material-and-mental reality (nor is there anything presented as "more real" than this empirical/tangible reality). A simple transcendental model would instead valorize "the other world" over this world, or at least offer some "true" substance in contrast to the world of appearances. The Samādhi-suttanta offers no such argument, and no such opposition. It states that there is no consciousness in earth, air, fire, water, etc. --rather, there is merely consciousness (not existing "in" any of these things, not even in thought, and not in a supernatural "other world"). Although interesting in various ways, there is no obvious support for B.B.'s assertion of nirvana as a transcendental "distinct object of knowledge" to be found in this particular text; it could easily be seen as consistent with Tilakaratne's argument instead.
The other source that B.B. has cited here does not deserve any lengthy consideration in this context: the Mahā-Māluṅkya-suttanta is a morality lecture, about overcoming the orambhāgiya (if you know what I mean, nudge nudge, wink wink). We have a huge stack of morality lectures in the canon, but this one seems to have zero salience to B.B.'s argument on transcendentalism. The suttanta is a somewhat broad-ranging lecture on the orthodox theme of overcoming desire (and the sensual/sensuous category of the "five lower fetters"), but there is no obvious connection to B.B.'s argument here. This seems so irrelevant that I wonder if an error was made in the citation, and perhaps B.B. had meant to cite the Cūḷa-māluṅkya-suttanta instead (i.e., confusing two similar names?). The Cūḷa-māluṅkya deals with the recurrent issue of death after nirvana (in contrast to other religions' assumptions about "life after death") but it would take a great deal of imagination to link this to B.B.'s specific argument.
Given that B.B. opened this contest with a bold reproach that Tilakaratne has employed an "acutely narrow selection" of texts to support his argument, the reader is now in a position to complain that B.B. has appealed to some acutely miscellaneous texts. The salience of the sources he invokes is dubious: if there is some important way in which any of these texts support B.B.'s argument, the burden is on the interpreter to demonstrate it to the audience (and not to leave it up to our imaginations).
However, B.B.'s own interpretation of nirvana as "transcendental" is not quite the same thing as his refutation of Tilakaratne's non-transcendental one.
B.B. proposes a division between "mystical" transcendence and "non-mystical" transcendence. He agrees with Tilakaratne in asserting that the Buddha's teaching does not contain the usual tropes of the mystics of other religions. For example, the two authors agree that the Buddha's silence in response to certain questions is not mystical, and should not be construed as a tacit indication of a belief in a transcendental other-reality. (p. 168–9). B.B. agrees that, "The Buddhism of the Pāli Canon adopts a decidedly non-mystical stance, and in this respect contrasts significantly both with non-dualistic Vedānta and with theism, as Tilakaratne rightly and repeatedly points out." (p. 172)
Very briefly, however, and without even one cited source, B.B. indicates that he interprets asaṅkhatā dhātu as "the unconditioned element", and that he considers this to be "affirming a transcendent reality".
It is conspicuous that B.B. proceeds (after this declaration) to discuss many different sources and subjects in rapid succession, but does not actually discuss (nor cite a single example of) the texts pertaining to the one term that he identifies as "affirming a transcendent reality". An incomplete list of what B.B. discusses in the pages remaining would be, (i) samādhi, (ii) the status of the arahat after death, (iii) the adequacy or inadequacy of language to express nirvana, (iv) the meaning of the term lokuttara --and yet we somehow never return to this point about the supposed "unconditioned element".
You might think that this would be very important for B.B. to explain, but no, instead, B.B. more-or-less runs away from the claim after announcing it. We are led to imagine that important facts about this term (asaṅkhatā dhātu) "…are there in the texts, and it seems that it is only by a wilful denial of their explicit content that one can get them to say something other than they appear to be saying." (p. 172)
B.B. does not claim that Tilakaratne is misinterpreting or ignoring these unspecified sources, so we are also left to wonder if Tilakaratne is unaware of the particular texts that B.B. has in mind that are so irrefutable, or if this is something they actually disagree about.
To add my own opinion to the matter, there are indeed many things explicitly stated in the canon about nirvana that are avoided through "wilful denial", but I'm not thinking of the same things that B.B. seems to be thinking of. Throughout the entire canon, for instance, we are assured that nirvana results in superhuman powers, including flight, and radiating flames. The ability to fly is so much part-and-parcel of nirvana that we find it declared amongst the Buddha's list of super-powers when he is defending his own legitimacy as the founder of the religion.*¹ It also appears, for example, when the monk Ānanda decides to resolve any doubts that he had attained nirvana: he demonstrates the fact by flying (rather than walking) to take his seat at the first council of monks, after the Buddha's death.*² In one suttanta, we have several of the Buddha's prominent monks demonstrating that they can fly and radiate flames, in a surreal attempt to outdo Brahma; this works, and the story concludes with Brahma being very much impressed at the supernatural powers that the Buddha's students acquire.*³
[Religious conversion through means other than rational debate;
There are many things explicitly stated in these texts that I think people are in "wilful denial" about, but I'm not at all convinced that the significance of asaṅkhatā dhātu is one of them. If we should reconsider the importance of such terms as asaṅkhatā dhātu, this article from B.B. only provides us with the suggestion that we might do so (and neither evidence nor any conclusions on the matter).
To use radically simpler terms: when we talk about nirvana, are we talking about a transformation of the person, or something that exists separately from the person?
The advantage of Tilakaratne's pragmatism is that is comes down wholly on the side of nirvana being something that people accomplish --and, thus, it is neither a place they go, nor a separate plane of existence, nor an "unconditioned element" (except as poetic hyperbole). Although I imagine that I would find many things to disagree with in Tilakaratne's work, the danger of B.B.'s approach is that it starts to construct nirvana as a substance, contrasted to the mere appearances of things, in a manner reminiscent of European philosophers such as Locke, Kant, and Schopenhauer. This possibility is, in fact, objected to in the aforementioned passage of the commentary (Vsm 507-509), where the interlocutor asks if the "permanence" of nirvana is not therefore the same as "the atom" (Ñanamoli's translation).
If we started from the canonical primary sources, I think we would have very different debates about the meaning of nirvana. The issue of transcendence-vs-immanence imposes a European puzzle onto the Buddhist puzzle-pieces.
Although I myself am bored of typing out the name of Schopenhauer so many times, I'll mention again that he was a massive influence on modern readings of Buddhist philosophy in both the West and the East. The basic idea that reality is an illusion masking something else (apprehensible through means other than the senses or discursive thought) is very much Schopenhauer's screed. He started building a metaphysical bridge linking Europe to India by endorsing the abnegation of the will (through asceticism) as one means (although not the only one) of gnosis with this reality-that-lies-beyond-reality. In many ways, Schopenhauer took the raw materials of European philosophy and used them to re-invent some of the basic principles found in (at least some schools of) Jain and Hindu thought (though he was not an expert in the latter). The resulting philosophy, however, had much less in common with Buddhism than Schopenhauer himself thought it did (and, I think, many Europeans who "grew up" reading Schopenhauer were eventually disappointed when they graduated to reading Buddhist primary sources). If you don't want to take my word for it, you can read the meticulous studies by Urs App, who has lately been scraping together the archival evidence of exactly how little Schopenhauer knew about Buddhism.
[Am I the only one surprised that Spinoza doesn't have his own postage stamp?]
Whereas Spinoza and Kant have haunted the minds of many men, it is really from Schopenhauer that we have the expectation that these issues matter to Buddhism, and that Buddhism has something important to teach "us" (Europeans) about the transcendence of the merely-sensory world. Of course, that expectation is not based on anyone's reading of the Pali canon (neither Schopenhauer's, nor anyone else's).
If we weren't burdened with the influence of European philosophers, we would not even be asking these questions in these terms. Wouldn't it be more natural for someone to ask how it is that nirvana came to be so strongly linked to the power of supernatural flight rather than dealing with an imaginary and tacit contrast between what is "imanent" and what is "transcendent" in the unstated implications of the text? A better question might be "natural" vs. "supernatural", or even "human" vs. "superhuman". Better questions, in general, might be addressed to things explicitly stated in the texts, and not things merely imagined to be indirectly entailed by them.
In the decadent West, people often convert to Buddhism first, and only find out what the religion is later --sometimes many years later. I continue to meet people who are shocked that "there is a hell" in the Pali canon; some of them converted because they specifically rejected the doctrine of hell that they knew in Christianity. It is difficult to imagine how these people have been studying Buddhism for so many years without knowing this; there seem to be aspects of both deception and self-deception involved.
There is open "strategizing" amongst Western monks as to which aspects of the religion they should reveal, and which conceal, in drawing outsiders into the religion. I have encountered (many times) a reasonable but utterly false assumption that Buddhist philosophy could increase its appeal by increasing its resemblance to European philosophies. Among other flaws in this assumption is the incongruous fact that names like Kant and Schopenhauer actually have less significance in western culture than Buddhism. Outside of academia, these "big names" in philosophy have neither influence nor renown for new religious movements to siphon. Considered on the social scale of even the most minor religions, all of Europe's philosophies are failures in the present century: although I've pointed out what extremely small percentages of westerners subscribe to Buddhism (in the U.S. and Canada), there is absolutely no percentage subscribing to (e.g.) the religion established by Auguste Comte, let alone Spinozism.
There is only one reliable result from these "false resemblances" used to entice people into Buddhism: the very same people who respond to such enticements will feel that they have been lied to when they discover how the contents of the canon have been misrepresented to them. In short, religious authorities discredit themselves, and secular scholars show their lack of reliability, objectivity, or even sanity in the exchange. Does anyone in the study of ancient Greece try to pretend that the Greeks were perfectly rational and scientific? Does anyone try to "cover up" the significance of hades, or the supernatural aspects of Heracles? This is a game that only ends by discrediting all the players.
The article by B.B. was published in 1996, in what was then a moderately-obscure journal called the Buddhist Studies Review. If you've seen copies of this "old" publication in their original form, you would know that it looks and feels much older than the 1990s: it was produced (in the U.K.) under the patronage of the Franco-Vietnamese Lin-Sơn temple. It was actually distributed in North America by Charles Prebish himself: on the last page, there's a mailing address to send him the subscription fees at Penn State University. The journal has the look and feel of a religious pamphlet handed out on street-corners --and the quality of printing and binding is much worse than many of its antecedents circa 1896.
However, the journal was a sort of crossroads where many scholars of the time made defiant statements, perhaps knowing that it was read by their colleagues and contemporaries. Recently, Prebish has been complaining that he has been too much criticized for an article in the same publication that nobody has actually read (i.e., because the thing is too hard to find a copy of).
The journal's very first issue (1983/4) identifies it as the joint publication of Lin-Sơn and the Pali Buddhist Union, to "further our mutual aims". The journal eventually became the dominion of a for-profit company ("Equinox Publishing, U.K.") --and it still exists as such today, with no resemblance to its founding format and mandate. If you look around the internet, you'll find that (aside from citations to this same journal) there is not much of a trace that the Pali Buddhist Union ever existed; I do not know if they're still a registered charity today.
As marginal and poorly-printed as such a publication may have been, it is dismaying to see that we have nothing like it in 2012. There should now be more debate of the kind that sparked between B.B. and Tilakaratne --not less. There should be more publications willing to deal with controversy, and to provide editorial oversight and standards for it.
One of the lessons to be drawn from this example is that Bhikkhu Bodhi (like the vast majority of mere mortals) does need an editor. This article was in dire need of an independent mind checking the citations, and questioning the author as to whether or not he is really stating his case in a way that the reader could understand. The role of the editor is not the same as the peer-reviewer: professional editors check facts, question the salience of citations, and ask authors to explain themselves more clearly (or propose clearer ways to state the case), in a sort of Socratic dialogue. That process was missing from the Buddhist Studies Review in the 1990s --and, it deserves to be said, it is missing from this website today. The absence of the editorial process is more significant than the absence of paper in the new (and increasingly digital) production of knowledge.
¹ [See, e.g., the Pāthika-suttanta (24th in the DN, first page of vol. 3 for both PTS and BJT). Here, the Buddha is defending his legitimacy against aspersions from an ex-devotee (who had since converted to a rival religion/philosophy) and provides a very long list of his miracles and super-powers in his own defense. This has resulted in some discomfort amongst modern commentators (and not westerners only) who would prefer to sweep anything supernatural under the rug; note that the summary provided by Malalasekera's Dictionary of Pali Proper Names (under Pātika [sic?], rather than Pāthika) is evasive in the extreme.]
² [I am thinking of the story as told in the Mhv chapter 3.]
³ [This is the Aparādiṭṭhi-suttanta, found in the SN's Kokālikavaggo starting PTS vol. 1, p. 136 (i.e., found several pages after that), BJT vol. 1, p. 260.]
A Bibliography of Just One Entry:
Bhikkhu Bodhi. 1996. "Nibbāna, Transcendence and Language". Buddhist Studies Review, Vol. 13, No. 2. London (?), U.K. ISSN 0265-2897