In any explanation to the question of how I became the way I am, I usually begin with the fact that I had a weird father. For example, he experimented a lot with what he called "the occult," dabbling in psychokinesis experiments, witchcraft, astral traveling, past life regression, dream communication, and communication with "spirits." He conducted or otherwise participated in many seances, in which presumably deceased individuals would communicate through a woman in trance. He did most of this before I was born and when I was very young, and so I never attended any of these seances, and knew about them mainly from his stories, and from one tape recording that gave me a case of the thrilled willies as a kid. In the recording two personalities came through—the first was not speaking English, and sounded like they were speaking in some Native American language, although I suppose it could have simply been gibberish. After some difficulty this "spirit" was finally dismissed, following which came jolly, booming laughter. The medium, in trance, directed her attention to my mother, who was in attendance. "Honey, do you remember me?" my mother was asked. She responded that she didn't, whereupon the personality reminded her that she (my mother) had dropped her (the spirit's) baby on its head. It turned out that the personality was Auntie, a black woman who lived in my mother's neighborhood when she was a little girl. She gave my mother some advice about taking care of me (I was a toddler at the time), and then faded out. My mother was very agitated by all this, as she had almost forgotten Auntie and had not told others about her. My mother tended to be very closed-mouthed about her youth.
So anyway, I had heard much about "channeling," as it came to be called, but had never attended a seance, until after I came to Burma.
I was living at Mahagandhayone at the time, the big school monastery near Mandalay, and I had the opportunity of attending a seance (or whatever it is called in Burma) due to my relations with a Burmese monk who was one of my teachers. He was rather intelligent, and had a university degree in Physics, yet he was, apparently by nature, often lacking in plain "sense." Or so it seemed to me. For the sake of this narrative, I'll call him U.
The Burmese, including university-educated city people, are often rather credulous by Western standards anyhow; and their interpretation of Reality is conditioned by a very different culture than ours in the West. The following may illustrate this. Once when I went to venerable U for my regular Burmese lesson he told me that he had some very interesting news to tell: a small kitten born in the neighborhood was able to speak fluent Burmese. Not being Burmese myself, I was skeptical to the point of being amused, and made a few semi-jokes, like, was the owner of the cat always nearby when it talked? Did the cat ever talk while he was drinking water? Then I explained to U that, even if the cat really were a lu win zah, i.e. the reincarnation of a human, a cat lacks the vocal apparatus to speak human language—it lacks the necessary areas of the brain, and also the necessary vocal cords, etc. U replied that the mystery would be cleared up soon, as two monks from a nearby dormitory were planning to go check out the cat. Upon their return we would get a reliable report.
When I came for my next lesson U informed me that the two monks had gone and made their investigation, and that, yes indeed, the kitten spoke fluent Burmese. However, it was just as I had explained: because the cat lacked the necessary vocal apparatus, nobody could actually understand what it was saying. So my theory is that the poor little beggar had some kind of brain damage and was making sounds more akin to human vocalizations than to the usual sounds of a normal kitten. But who knows. I never saw the cat myself.
Anyway, one time my teacher went on a trip of several days' duration, accompanied by another monastic friend of his; and when he came back and met with me he was in a state of great agitation. He said amazing things had happened, and that he very much wanted to tell me about them, but that he felt I wouldn't believe him. He couldn't contain himself for very long, however, and soon blurted out that "a god" had been telling him astonishing news about himself, about his past lives, and also a little about me and mine. At first I was confused. A god? How could a god tell him anything? Could he have had a vision of some sort? But it turned out that his friend's sister-in-law was nat win, that is, a god or deva entered into her. In modern English terminology she would be called a channeler or spirit medium.
A nat win thu should not be confused with a nat kadaw, or "wife of a deva," who is also a person allegedly possessed by a deva from time to time. Nat kadaws go into a seeming trance state and dance orgiastically at festivals, sometimes making semi-coherent prophecies also. In the past they were often unmarried young women or middle-aged ones, but nowadays, as often as not, they are homosexual young men, or so I've been told. In any case, skeptical Westerners often suppose that, even if they're not faking it, they are more hysterical than possessed, and that the wild dancing is a socially acceptable means for them to flaunt themselves and work off repressed frustrations. I have learned that if you want to scandalize a Burmese person, refer to some wizard, alchemist, or psychic that they respect as a nat kadaw. Once at a Burmese monastery in California a Chinese psychic was intending to come for a visit, and one of the Burmese monks in particular was all in a flutter of anticipation. On the day she was to make her visit I asked him, "Well, where's the nat kadaw?" He retorted, in high indignation, "She's not a nat kadaw! She has universal knowledge!" So anyhow, my teacher's friend's sister-in-law was of a more reputable class of supernaturally-influenced people than a lowly nat kadaw.
But when U told me of some of her utterances, they seemed to me to be things that a traditional Burmese Buddhist could accept without question, but which a Westerner like myself found hard to swallow. For instance, U and I were allegedly brother bhikkhus under the previous Buddha Kassapa many millions of years ago. So I was pretty much of an unbeliever almost immediately, and would sometimes adopt a position of devil's advocate with U when he spoke of Abhaya-kumāra, the deva who supposedly communicated through the young woman. Our conversations on the subject would sometimes take the form of:
"And he says…"
"No, she says."
"No, he says!"
"No, she says."
Once or twice I even pointed out to him that consulting with a spirit medium is dismissed in the Pali suttas as tiracchāna-vijjā, animal knowledge or "bestial wisdom," kumārī pañho and deva pañho, questioning a girl in trance or a god, respectively, being low pursuits that a bhikkhu should not involve himself with. U replied that Abhaya-kumāra was a sakadāgāmī, a middle-ranking Buddhist saint, and so the label of "animal knowledge" certainly would not apply in this case.
Although I was somewhat more hard-headed and hard-hearted in those days, still I tried to be open-minded, and was curious about this phenomenon. U told me that Abhaya-kumāra had passed tests of clairvoyance, for example, easily telling what was behind closed doors and in closed boxes. (Clairvoyance would be a virtual necessity for a Buddhist superhuman being, incidentally—dibbacakkhu, or the "divine eye," is a normal sense faculty among devas in the Buddhist cosmos.) And when one day U enthusiastically informed me that soon his friend's sister-in-law would be in Mandalay and that we could meet her, I did not hesitate to go along with the plan.
I have little doubt that there really are superhuman beings in this universe, and would not be surprised if quite a few of them are watching us right now (after all, this planet is rather an interesting one), and also would not be surprised if they sometimes communicate with us humans; but to me at the time, whether or not Abhaya-kumāra was a genuine deva or not was practically incidental. Mainly what I was interested in was the possibility of clairvoyance, regardless of whether it belonged to the deity or to the subconscious imagination of the sister-in-law. If she really was clairvoyant and could see past lives and so on, I would be very interested to find out about a few things, like maybe some of my own past lives. Really, if there is such a phenomenon as rebirth, then it clearly would be fascinating, and probably very useful besides, to have our amnesia cleared away a little, so to speak. So rather than test her for the presence of a deva, I wanted to test her for clairvoyance.
The trick was to rule out the possibility of mere telepathy. For example, if she could tell what was in a closed box, it didn't necessarily mean she could see inside; it could mean that she was simply reading the mind of someone who already knew what was in the box. So if I were to test her, I would have to run "double-blind" tests—that is, I'd have to ask her questions that nobody in the room, including me, could possibly know by normal means. So I devised two experiments.
The first was an easy one, which was inspired by an old Zen story I had read years before. In the story a man's wife had died and he was planning to remarry, but the ghost of his wife had begun haunting him, causing him a fair amount of anxiety. So he went to a monk and asked him what to do. The monk, apparently realizing that the "ghost" might merely be a manifestation of the man's own guilty conscience, told him that the next time the spirit appeared, he should hold out a handful of beans and ask her how many beans were in his hand. If she couldn't answer, then it meant that she was not really a ghost, and not really there at all. So the man did as he was advised; he held out the handful of beans, asked the apparition how many there were in his hand…and the apparition simply vanished, never to bother him again. Anyway, for this test all I did was collect some kind of hard little yellow fruits that were falling from a tree in the yard around my cabin. I put them in a plastic bag and set them aside.
The second test was more complicated. At the very beginning, to be fair to Abhaya-kumāra, I performed a little ceremony with an offering of incense, inviting him to come and watch. Then I cut up about 35 little cardboard squares, all the same size, and drew a different symbol on each one. Then I tightly closed my eyes, mixed them all up, picked three of them at random, holding them up so that Abhaya-kumāra could easily see them, put the three into an opaque envelope, sealed it, put away the other little squares, and then opened my eyes. So aside from the 35 or so possibilities, I did not know which three symbol cards were in the envelope. Then I set the envelope aside too, and waited for the big day.
The big day eventually came, and U, another Burmese monk, and I got a ride to Mandalay to meet the medium, and maybe also to meet Abhaya-kumāra. The sister-in-law was a rather young, petite lady with a high, slightly squeaky voice. Also in attendance were about five other Burmese laypeople. She went into trance easily, with no preliminary ceremonies; and while in trance her facial expression and voice changed but little, although she seemed more at ease, charged with energy, and self-confident. I asked permission to ask her/him a few questions, and she/he readily consented.
So first I took out the plastic bag of little fruits, reached in and grabbed a small handful, taking care not to have any idea how many there might be, and asked her how many fruits I had in my hand. Neither she nor Abhaya-kumāra immediately disappeared. Instead, without hesitation, she answered, "ခြောက် ခု မြောက်," i.e., "The sixth one." U turned to me and confidently said, "Six." Then, partly for dramatic effect I suppose, not knowing myself how many there were, I began pulling them one by one out of my closed hand and placing them on the table before me. I pulled out thirteen. So she apparently failed the first test.
Next I took the envelope out of my bag and told her that inside it were three cards, each with a small picture on it, and asked her what the pictures were. Again without any hesitation at all, she replied, in Burmese, "A flower, a mountain, and a table or chair." At this I knew she had failed the second test also, since none of those were among the symbols I drew. I opened the envelope and pulled out cards showing a plus sign (+), a circle, and a lit candle. At this point I figured that she wasn't really clairvoyant, or not very anyhow, and pretty much lost interest in asking her any more questions. U had become very agitated, and explained to her/him in a pleading voice that if she/he didn't show her power I wouldn't believe. Also at one point he was so unnerved that when I said something in Burmese he translated it into English, which the lady didn't understand. Meanwhile the other Burmese monk, who was sitting on the other side of me, was chuckling nervously. She asked if I had any more questions; and although, as I say, I had lost most of my interest in asking, still I asked her one more—not to test her, but just to see what she would say. I asked, "What is my greatest spiritual danger in this life?" Her answer, also without hesitation, was "Doubt."
After that I mostly kept silent, and other people asked their questions, mainly about worldly matters. U asked her several questions, one of them about what had become of a parcel that someone had sent to him from overseas, but which he hadn't received. He apparently liked my spiritual danger question though, and asked her the same with regard to himself (but I don't remember what her answer to him was). Eventually she did mention something about one of my past lives: U told me that, according to Abhaya-kumāra, I had lived in Burma in a previous life, but that my skin was different. I'm not sure what that was supposed to mean. Later on another Burmese friend of mine who had listened to the recording of the session told me that that's not what she really said…but declined to tell me what she had in fact told us. My skin was different? Maybe she had said that I was female, but the Burmese monks didn't want to insult me? (Remember, women are generally considered to be inferior to men in traditional Asian cultures.) I'll probably never know what she really said. It probably doesn't matter anyway.
After the audience with Abhaya-kumāra was over and the young lady had come out of her trance, she was genuinely puzzled and apologetic over the fact that the deva was unable to answer my test questions. I got the impression at the time, and am still of the opinion, that she was not a deliberate fraud. She seemed genuinely sincere, and very probably believed, as did many others, that a genuine deva was communicating through her. On the other hand, I rather doubt (←my greatest spiritual danger) that a deva, partially enlightened or not, was communicating through her.
Recently I read a book by René Guénon, an odd fellow who had a rather odd explanation for "spirit mediums." He said that, just as a person leaves behind physical remains after death in the form of a material corpse, so the person leaves behind psychic remains also, a kind of residual energy, which mediums access. Thus according to Guénon, any communications come not from the actual being, but from a "phantasmagorical psychic corpse." It's an interesting idea, but I doubt that it is true. The personalities channeled by people in trance may be very vibrantly alive, and may have more personality and more wide-open consciousness than the channeler in her or his ordinary waking state. I'm more inclined to follow the explanation of Mary Baker Eddy. She says that spirits do exist in this Universe, but they tend to be preoccupied with their own version of reality and to contact us humans only very rarely. Instead what usually is the case is this: We all have literally infinite access to profound wisdom, Divinity, and infinite consciousness, but most of us are unable or unready to accept this fact. So, a person's subconscious mind may invent some "spirit" personality as a kind of gimmick for accessing deeper wisdom than the conscious mind can ordinarily reach. A person may more easily accept the notion that a wise spirit is communicating through her than that she is the really wise one. So my theory is that U's friend's sister-in-law was subconsciously dissociating, yet was using this dissociation to access knowledge or wisdom that she couldn't ordinarily access. As far as I know she never charged money for what she was doing, and as I've said before she appeared to believe sincerely that she was channeling a good Buddhist deva (and of course I can't entirely rule out the possibility of the truth of that); yet she did receive respect and attention that she wouldn't ordinarily have received. She even had monks coming to her for advice and guidance.
It may be that she did have some telepathic talent also, but not genuine clairvoyance. Another possible explanation for her failure to pass my tests is reminiscent of another idea of Guénon's. According to him, modern westernized people are so immersed in materialistic cultural conditioning that we become closed off to non-materialistic possibilities like communication with beings at other "vibrations," so to speak. So it may be that, although I'm not nearly as materialistic as most of my fellow Americans, I've been so permeated by a ubiquitous materialistic attitude that I unwittingly produced a kind of deadening effect on the psychic talents of the young woman. Even Jesus of Nazareth was reportedly unable to perform many miracles in his own home town, due to the lack of faith of the people who knew him—"Hey, isn't that Jesus the carpenter? Don't his brothers and sisters live here in town? Who the heck does he think he is?" So maybe I was a kind of psychic wet blanket. At any rate, I saw no reason to continue asking her questions.
U, however, and even the other monk who had been sniggering next to me, remained believers in Abhaya-kumāra. My venerable teacher's interpretation of Abhaya-kumāra's responses to my questions are as follows: When she/he said "The sixth one" I began counting the fruits prematurely, since she hadn't exactly said that there were six fruits in my hand; and anyhow, Ariyas may speak in cryptic-sounding language that is difficult to understand. And as for the symbols on the cards, a circle looks like a flower; a mountain, especially on a map, may be represented by a plus sign, and the candle no doubt was resting on the table she/he had mentioned. So she/he didn't fail the tests after all. U continued going to her again and again, becoming, it seemed to me, a bit emotionally dependent on her. I was somewhat more hard-headed and hard-hearted back then, as I've already mentioned, and I grew very impatient with my teacher U, and lost a considerable amount of respect for the man. I eventually even unilaterally terminated our lessons and started avoiding him. Once, before quite reaching this stage, after he was telling me of how we had been colleagues in a previous life millions of years previously, I acidly retorted that it was totally amazing to me that he could have a university degree in Physics. At this he became indignant and counter-retorted, "Science is one truth; Dhamma is another truth." As the years have passed, I must admit, I have grown to have more and more appreciation for that idea.
A Burmese deva