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)