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Buddhist Philosophy and

Transpersonal Psychology

Transpersonal Psychology
'The central concept in Transpersonal Psychology is self-transcendence, or a sense of identity which is deeper, broader, and more unified with the whole. The root of the term, transpersonal or literally "beyond the mask," refers to this self-transcendence'
  -   John Davis,

Transpersonal Psychology grew out of the rejection of the mechanistic or behaviorist model of the mind which was the orthodoxy of the mid-twentieth century academic establishment .   Charles T. Tart refers to this orthodoxy when describing his college experience in the 1960's:

'As to things like mystical experiences, if they were mentioned at all, which was rare, they were relegated to the fringes of psychiatry as being undoubtedly schizophrenic in nature and just showed how sick religions were to be associated with superstitious nonsense like that.

Real people in real life were still having transpersonal experiences of course, but they didn't speak of them around psychologists unless they wanted to be referred for treatment for psychopathology...'

Gradually, the climate of opinion has changed. And the mind (as distinct from being an epiphenomenon of matter) has been rediscovered.  A number of reasons for this development have been suggested:

  • The experiences of the 60's generation with mind-expanding substances.

  • Growing familiarity with meditational techniques which offer a glimpse of the non-physical nature of the mind.

  • The failure of Artificial Intelligence to deliver. Computers can model and simulate any physical system but they do not appear to be able to simulate the mind.

  • A gradual realisation of the participatory nature of reality, as the implications of quantum physics have become more widely disseminated among non-physicists.

However, although there is general ageement among Transpersonal Psychologists that the mind is something more than a physical machine,  models of the mind still remain vague.  It is hoped that this webpage, while not offering many answers, may at least define what kinds of questions can sensibly be asked, in particular:

Is there one Universal Mind or are there many individual minds?
The Buddhist influence has always been strong within Transpersonal Psychology, and it is perhaps worthwhile considering the Buddhist teaching that one should avoid defilement by 'stains of conceptions of the eight extremes' [1]. The particular extremes which apply to conceptions of the mind(s) are:

  • The extreme of plurality.
  • The extreme of singularity.

The Extreme of Plurality states that our minds are separate from the divine mind and from one another.  The Extreme of Singularity states that there is one all-encompassing divine mind.

The Extreme of Plurality
The Extreme of Plurality is illustrated by the dogmas of all the repressive religions (memes), that the mind of God is separate from the souls of his creatures.  The world is a sorting machine. God feeds the souls in at one end, and life sorts them out into those which are fit to be united with the mind of God, and those which are to be rejected. (This results in a logical contradiction -  If God is omniscient, why does He need to put souls through the Quality Control system in the first place. Presumably he knows in advance where they're going to end up before they enter the sorting machine).

The Extreme of Singularity
The Extreme of Singularity comes in two versions - Solipsism and Pantheism.

  • Solipsism
    Solipsism states that my mind is all that exists and all other phenomena, including other people, are illusions. Life is a dream. Solipsism is impossible to disprove, though it isn't a very popular belief. Solipsist Associations don't attract many members, probably because most solipsists don't go around trying convert other people.
  • Pantheism
    Pantheists believe that all is ensouled. The Mind of God is everywhere. Consciousness resides throughout the universe in humans, animals and also in inanimate objects such as trees,  tomatoes, rocks and thermostats (thermostats! - You think I jest?). Of course, if mind is in all objects, then there is little to differentiate it from matter, and the concept of mind becomes meaningless.

From a Buddhist point of view, an ordinary object could not be said to partake of   mind unless it were sentient, which at the lowest common denominator means it is capable of experiencing dukkha


'A paradox! A paradox! At commonsense she gaily mocks...'
So we have a paradox. When we try to enumerate mind in terms of one or many, or separation or identity with the divine, we end up with logical contradictions, meaninglessly vague definitions, or solipsism.  Don't these Buddhists just love paradoxes!  

We could accept the paradox in the way that we have to accept that an electron is both a particle and wave.  We could say that mind is both one or many. Fortunately, there is another way out. We could take the view that the concept of number does not apply to mind(s). Crazy?  No it's actually a respectable mathematical theory due to John von Neumann, one of the pioneers of computer science.


Mind is the source and origin of enumeration.
Mind(s) is/are the source and origin of enumeration. It/they therefore cannot  be enumerated. 
Von Neuman's theory relies on simple manipulations of sets:

A set is a collection of things.  An empty set is a collection of nothing at all.    An empty set can be thought of as nothing with the potential to become something (that is to be become a set with at least one member).

Von Neumann proposed that all numbers could be bootstrapped out of the empty set by the operations of the mind:

The mind observes the empty set. The mind's act of observation causes the appearance another set - the set of empty sets. The set of empty sets is not empty, because it contains one non-thing - the empty set. The mind has thus generated the number 1 by producing the set containing the empty set.

Now the mind perceives the empty set and the set containing the empty set, so there are two non-things. The mind has generated the number 2 out of emptiness. And so it goes on all the way up.

Stated stepwise the operation is:

STEP 0  {} Empty set has 0 parts.

STEP 1  { {} }  Mind generates set containing empty set, which has one part.

STEP 2 { {}, { {} }} Mind generates set containing two parts, the set and the set containing the empty set.

etc, etc

So the entire number system, from zero to infinity,  is generated purely and simply by the play of mind on emptiness, in the complete absence of the need to refer to any material objects being counted.

The philosphical implication of these findings is that mind ontologically precedes number. In other words in the ground of being, mind is more fundamental than number. Asking 'How many minds are there?'  is putting the cart before the horse. It is equivalent to asking 'What is the color of electromagnetism?'  Transpersonal mind is transnumeral mind.


Mind(s) is/are the source and origin of enumeration. It/they therefore cannot  be enumerated.  Understanding that existence is neither the extreme of one mind, nor the extreme of many minds, makes Buddhist practices - such as tantra, exchanging self and others, receiving blessings from enlightened beings, and generating great compassion - easier to understand. It also explains why the operations of the mind(s) are non-computable (ie non-algorithmic).

- Sean Robsville

[REF 1]  'Eight Steps to Happiness'  Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Tharpa Publications  Ulverston, 2000, ISBN 0 948006 65 x, Pages 201 - 203

See also:

Introduction to Buddhism

Buddhist Teachings
on the mind, personal relationships, meditation and the spiritual path.

Formless Mind
'..The fact that the mind is formless means that it is unconstrained, and hence has immense potential. The mind can comprehend all objects including its own creations.  The description of the root mind as 'formless' doesn't just refer to its non-material nature, but it emphasises that it is unlimited, non-mechanistic and totally free from any structure or topology. In Buddhist psychology the root mind is non-physical and non-algorithmic.  The mind cannot be understood in terms of circuit diagrams and flowcharts. It is pure awareness..'

Materialism (Physicalism)
...'It is fairly obvious how Kadampa philosophy maps onto physicalism.  It agrees that things-in-themselves are unfindable and can only be known by interdependence with other things. It agrees that the first of these ways of interdependence is algorithmic - IF ... THEN... ELSE - cause and effect. It agrees that the second way of interdependence is by analysis into structured information. However it goes further by pointing out that physicalism is an inadequate explanation for all  phenomena.   A third mode of interdependence - dependence on the mind - is necessary to explain the phenomena of awareness.'...

Meditating on emptiness
'....For a qualified meditator single-pointedly absorbed in emptiness, there is no difference between production and disintegration, impermanence and permanence, going and coming, singularity and plurality - everything is equal in emptiness and all problems of attachment, anger, and self-grasping ignorance are solved...'

Secret mantra
'....The etymology of Secret Mantra is as follows. `Secret' indicates that these methods should be practised discreetly. If we make a display of our practices, we will attract many hindrances and negative forces. This would be like someone talking openly and carelessly about a precious jewel they possessed and, as a result, attracting the attention of thieves. `Mantra' means `protection for the mind...'

Primordial Mind
'....Throughout its early history, the universe continued to develop as an immense superposition of probabilities. Not only was the structure of the universe superposed, but all logically possible states of matter, physical constants, properties and laws were simultaneously present and evolving into ever increasing diversity. Quantum theory states that any physical system remains in a superposed state of all possibilities until it interacts with the mind of an observer. At some instant one of these possible alternative universes produced an observing lifeform - an animal with a nervous system which was sufficiently evolved to form a symbiotic association with a primordial mind. The first act of observation by this mind caused the entire superposed multiverse to collapse immediately into one of its numerous alternatives...'

Mind, Soul, Heaven and Hell in Christianity and Buddhism
The entity which survives death is known as  'The Soul'  by Christians and as 'The Very Subtle Mind' by Buddhists...The terms 'Soul' and 'Mind' are not equivalent.  There are a number of minor distinctions between the concepts which, taken by themselves, could be regarded simply as trivial doctrinal differences.  However, there are also two major philosophical differences which separate the concepts of  mind and soul into different ontological categories.

Repressive religions
'...Caesar-in-the-Sky has been so overspecified with superlatives, especially with the fatal feedback loop of omniscience, that he has been constructed into what philosophers would call a 'logically necessary being' (ie a changeless, inherently existent being ). But a logically necessary being can neither change anything, nor undergo change itself. Nor can it make a decision or in any other way interact with contingent reality. The concept of the Creator is fraught with difficulty.  Who created the creator? If the Creator 'just is' then maybe the universe 'just is'. Why multiply entities unnecessarily?...'

Emptiness of mathematics
' the final analysis the entire number system has been generated by the play of mind on emptiness, in the complete absence of the need to refer to any material thing, or things, which are being counted.  Numbers do not exist by reference to physical reality, nor are they self-existent, abstract 'things in themselves'...'

The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences
So we are left with something of a mystery. According to the physicalist worldview, the mind (including mathematicians' minds) is an epiphenomenon of matter which has evolved solely to ensure the survival of the selfish genes which code for it. Why should this 'top-level' phenomenon have such intimate access to the 'bottom level' phenomena such as quantum physics? After all, the two levels are supposedly separated by less well-understood (in some cases) explanatory layers such as evolutionary psychology,   neurology, cell biology, genetics, molecular biology, and chemistry.


If we regard Buddhism as a combination of a philosophy, psychology and religion, then how much mileage can we get from the first two aspects before we have to start invoking religious faith?

Buddhism in Everyday Life
The Daily Meditation