Buddhist Meditation
Primary Errors Part 3

For the past 2 weeks I have been offering constructive critiques of certain aspects of Theravada Buddhism. To recap: Theravada is the oldest form of Buddhism. Tibetan, Chinese, Zen, and Pure Land Buddhism are later reforms that vary quite a bit from the original teachings.

People who read these critical posts may jump to the conclusion that I am saying there is no benefit to be gained by a serious study of the old Buddhist texts.

This is not the case.

What I am saying is that people who study Buddhism, or any other form of meditation, need to do so with an open mind. This will help them see both the truth as well as that which may possibly be significant error in the teachings they are studying.

This week I am writing about the miraculous powers attributed to Buddha in the old Buddhist texts. I believe that reading or talking about these stories as though they were anything other than primitive myths or allegorical stories can be a significant distraction or block to further study.

Here is a classic example from one of the talks attributed to the Buddha. In this passage, supposedly, the Buddha is describing some of the supernormal abilities gained by serious meditation practice.

“And he with mind concentrated,…applies and directs his mind to the various supernormal powers…(for example) he appears and disappears; he passes through fences, walls, and mountains unhindered as if through air…he walks on the water without breaking surface as if on land; he flies cross-legged through the sky like a bird with wings; he even touches and strokes the sun and the moon…and he travels in the body as far as the Brahma world.”

(From Sutta # 2 “Fruits of the Homeless Life” from the Digha Nikaya Wisdom Publications Somerville, MA translated by Maurice Walsh 2012 105 page 350.)

Even in the 21st century these passages are often not described as being mythical accounts. In fact I have heard highly intelligent American Buddhist teachers such as Joseph Goldstein speak about such possibilities as though they were facts.

Here are my general comments:

If highly concentrated states of mind give Buddhist practitioners such abilities then let them demonstrate them in whatever dignified and properly respectful yet scientifically valid forums that are available. After all, if such things are possible it would provide tremendously important insights into the true nature of what we call reality. Discerning how such things could be possible would keep mystics and hard core scientists busy for years.

But if no one is able to demonstrate these powers, then perhaps modern Buddhists could simply say something like this: “Our Suttas are laden with myth and fantasy like many other ancient texts. We will no longer talk about either the Buddha or ancient or modern practitioners as though meditation gives them supernormal powers.”

Would that really be so hard?

But, as you may imagine, the Buddhists who say such supernormal abilities are definitely possible decline to demonstrate them for the rest of us ordinary folks.

Turning the sage Gautama into the miracle working Buddha is the same kind of mistake the Jews made turning Moses into a miracle worker. It is the same mistake the Christians made turning Jesus into the miracle working Cosmic Christ. It is the same mistake Muslims made turning Muhammad into the “perfect man.”

But there is an important nuance to keep in mind as a subtle counterpoint to these critical comments when studying any of the ancient texts.

There is great benefit in studying the lives of the Avatars like Gautama, Jesus, Moses and Muhammad and other leading figures in world history.

There is also great benefit in studying the mythical stories and miracles attributed to these Avatars. These stories can evoke insights and intuitions that give rise to meditation experiences that help one traverse the spectrum that leads from ordinary to noticeably deeper experiences of peace and insight. These evocative stories can help a person progress to deeper experiences in a way that discursive reasoning cannot for most people.

But until proven otherwise, it is important to not confuse creative stories about the supernormal powers of the Avatars as being literally true.

It is important to realize the stories of supernatural abilities from Buddhism and Christianity, and other religions, have little or nothing to do with the process of attaining enlightenment.

Please let me know your thoughts. All constructive comments will be posted. In fact constructive comments would be helpful. My goal in writing this blog is to meet new people who are dedicated to a serious study of meditation in the context of comparative monastic studies.

Will Raymond Author of “The Simple Path of Holiness” host of Meditationpractice.com

will    at   meditation    practice   dot com   (spelled out to limit spam)

774-232-0884

2 thoughts on “Buddhist Meditation
Primary Errors Part 3

  1. The stories of supernormal powers found in all of these traditions are, frankly, what interests me most in the writings. Perhaps this points to some character flaw of mine, but the more banal aspects of spiritual texts often seem to me to impart common sense that can be attained by careful reasoning. For example (from Exodus because I haven’t studied Buddhism), the message “you shall not murder” is a maxim that can be deduced from many philosophers work through reason, including Bentham in the principle of utility and Kant, the categorical imperative. In other words, the message of the spiritual texts without the supernormal seems almost unnecessary, for lack of a better articulation. What makes these texts engaging for me, is grappling with the expressions of the supernormal. Without that, I feel like I have better sources for guidance. However, the parting of the sea in Exodus as a literal historical event is compelling to me. My inquiry is something like, “What does it imply about the nature of the universe if this really happened”?
    In my readings of Joseph Campbell’s interviews in The Power of Myth, myths are characterized as expressions of human experience and a sort of moral glue that roots everyone in society to the same place. When I look at the supernormal from that perspective, the stories seem like fables, and again I lose interest. The mystery and power of the miraculous in a literal, physical sense, is what interests me in the spiritual texts; the challenge to my understanding of the universe as governed by Newtonian physical laws.
    With that said, how would you suggest approaching the stories/myths of supernormal powers so as to gain something valuable?

    • Thanks for the note. Please forgive the lengthy reply, but you asked some great questions.

      I remain open minded about the stories of supernormal powers which Buddhists say are possible in the deepest states of interior silence and equanimity. If someone is willing to demonstrate these powers are real then it would suggest a major revision of the standard models of 21st century science. The same is true for inexplicable healing miracles spoken of so regularly by Catholics. If even one or two or these accounts actually withstand the rigorous review of modern science, then once again, major tenets of 21st century science would be called into serious question.

      I also remain open that little if any of the supernatural “spooky stuff” is literally true.

      What is important is not the literal truth but the allegorical power of the Avatars.

      Generally I see the supernormal stories as being allegories for truths that are hard to describe in merely rational terms.

      One good suggestion is to see if there is a tradition and set of sacred texts you can commit to study closely. As one does this they will see certain leitmotifs of supernatural stories or imagery that occur in different garb over the centuries. For example, the parting of the sea in the Exodus story is in one view replayed at a on a more cosmic level in the story of the Resurrection. Both accounts are powerful stories of people being freed from bondage. In Exodus it is freedom from slavery under Pharaoh (image of the false. which is to say the ego inflated self). With the Resurrection it is the freedom from the bondage of old age, decline, suffering and death.

      Many passages in a sacred text may not be inspiring one way or the other. But keep looking for the odd phrase or story that catches you by surprise. You will find more and more of these over time. You will also uncover, over the years, deeper and deeper layers of meaning in those stories. It is this patient reading of both the moral content and the symbolic passages that will open up these increasingly refined reference frames of understanding and experience.

      Catholics call this Lectio Divina or divine reading. It is a powerful transformative practice although one that unfolds slowly as one immerses themselves in those sacred accounts one finds to be “numinous.”

      Certainly you will have to wade through a great deal of dysfunction and repetitive folderol in any sacred text and tradition, but over the years you will find passages that open up new vistas of understanding and experience. You will also come to understand why the ancient texts have retained their power to inspire generation after generation down through the centuries.

      But do not overlook the studies of ego and vanity, surrender and humility and the boring rational stuff. All of these elements work together with the symbolic stories and rituals in ways that make spirituality different from philosophy and science. For without dispersing the rigid structures of self, the intuitive apprehension of the trans-rational meaning of many key themes of any tradition will remain hidden.

      As you can imagine, I feel that a serious study of meditation is another key ingredient that makes deeper understanding and experience possible. Unless the deeper states of interior quiet and calm are attained the mind will simply never gain sufficient purity of compassion and penetrative strength to attain the needed breakthroughs.

      More later,

      Will

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