It seems to me that modern Buddhism is trying to avoid, as much as it can, any meaningful and informative discussion about the place of the transcendent in Buddhism, including, if there is such a place. In popular books about Buddhism the subject of transcendence is very seldom mentioned except, in an offhand way. As one notable secular Buddhist author pointed out, the Buddha’s awakening was not an insight into a transcendent truth.
Transcendence, that is, the fact of transcending, generally means to have gone beyond certain limits. In Buddhism, the limit appears to be the psychophysical organism consisting of material shape, feeling, perception, habitual tendencies and consciousness. What we learn from the canon is that the self or âtman is beyond the the five constituents of the psychophysical organism just as we might consider the substance gold to be beyond the shapes it can be made into.
Material shape, nor the rest of the psychophysical constituents, have any connection with the self, that is, our true self. The first-person is strictly transcendent. Because of this, expecting to see it, for example, with the eye is impossible since the eye is part of material shape. It is not a percept, either, or something that we can be conscious of. It lies quite beyond, that is, transcends the nets of the five psychophysical constituents. This explains why the Buddha said the self is a refuge with no other refuge (D. ii. 100). To be sure, the self as refuge is beyond the vicissitudes of samsara; it transcends it.
For modern Buddhists to believe that nirvana is not transcendent is strange and difficult to understand. It is more than likely a reflection of just how much materialism has infected modern culture. The Buddha, in fact, teaches that liberation (vimutti) is the meaning of nirvana (S. iii. 189). And what else might liberation be if not the experience of having transcended the five psychophysical constituents which are synonymous with suffering.
“Form, feeling, perception, consciousness, and formations—I am not this, this isn’t mine, thus one is detached (virajjati) from it” (S. i. 112). (This unusual passage has consciousness before formations.)
Buddhism is a religion of redemption (i.e., deliverance from bondage), to be sure, but accomplishes this liberation by transcending the world of suffering which includes the psychophysical body. We, the innermost self (paccatta) attain liberation/nirvana; we, the innermost self transcend samsara.