Saturday, April 25, 2015

A Brief, Incoherent Theory of Psychic Powers

     "The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine." —Arthur C. Clarke

     "The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible." —the same guy

     This article will discuss such phenomena as sorcery, psychic talents and attainments, miracles, and enlightenment, the existence of which, I realize, are positively disbelieved by the scientific materialists of the West, including many who consider themselves to be Buddhists. If you're not willing even to consider the possibility that the so-called Laws of Physics may be broken, then this article is not for you. You're silly. Read the Wall Street Journal, or just go meditate.
     It is a kind of Western intellectual hubris which believes, takes for granted even, that it understands Reality. (It is a universal law of human nature that we all can accept that other cultures, and even our own culture a hundred years ago, are/were ignorant and superstitious...but that WE have finally found The Truth. Almost everyone throughout history has been like this. "Yeah, but this time we really have found the truth!"—Og of the White Sky Clan, 12551BCE) Really what Western wisdom has is a set of plausible and useful explanations for those aspects of Reality which scientists (and common people) are able to perceive; total Reality is infinite, as many scientists, even, are inclined to suppose, and infinitely beyond the scope of human perception or imagination, very probably even in our immediate vicinity. We, and our instruments, may simply be incapable of detecting most of what is all around us, even what is staring us right in the face. We are like people trying to understand an iceberg without seeing so much as the tip of that iceberg; all we can see is waves and ripples bouncing off of it. Intellectuals may come up with truly ingenious methods for determining the size and shape of its cross section where it emerges from the water, etc., but they can't even know that it is made of ice. Or, we are like blind worms, at least so long as we are trying to understand Reality by thinking about it intellectually.
     Before wading any farther, I will point out that what I intend to write about is primarily about psychic phenomena that are conscious. From a Buddhist or Hindu point of view, we are all performing miracles all the time, through the subconscious or semiconscious (or maybe superconscious) workings of karma. Phenomena are mind-made, as the first verse of the Dhammapada declares. Our karma, consisting of volitional mental states, is conditioning our environment all the time, and in ways that scientists do not recognize (except for a few unorthodox cranks on the fringe of respectable science).
     One of the more primitive forms of psychic phenomena is vulgarly known as "magic." My father was a nondenominational warlock (not Wicca) who ran a coven of witches of sorts for a few years, mainly as an exploration of what he called "the occult," so I figure I know enough about the subject to say a few things about it. First, apparently, magic sometimes really works, especially if the people involved believe that it works. It can cure illnesses, for example; and even if the cure is only the placebo effect relieving psychosomatic symptoms, still, it works. Once a woman in my father's group had a troublesome rash on her skin, so the group got together, did their spells, and removed it. Then the rash reappeared in a different place, so they got together and removed it again. After it came back the third or fourth time, they figured that she had some karmic need for it, so they simply moved the rash to a place where it would cause as little inconvenience as possible (to her leg), and there it stayed.
     One reason sorcery, at least in the form of witchcraft, works, even with worldly people whose concentration may not ordinarily be all that strong, is that gimmicks are used to focus the power of one or many minds onto a single object. Group participation in rituals, with group incantations and synchronized rhythmic bodily movements, help to focus ordinarily weak mental energies into something much stronger, somewhat like a magnifying glass concentrates sunlight sufficiently to ignite paper. Also, of course, the people's belief that it is possible very much helps it to be possible. Many witches are notoriously immoral, so the purity of mind which, according to orthodox Buddhism, allows psychic powers to be performed are not much of an issue here—unless maybe, through a kind of temporary dissociation, a talented witch can briefly accentuate what purity she or he has. But enough about witches.
     Psychic powers, such as knowing the minds of others, remembering one's own past lives, or, in more extreme cases, disappearing in one place and instantaneously reappearing somewhere else, which are relatively very rare in the modern West but are allegedly more common in places where modern Westernism does not yet predominate, are, according to texts like the Visuddhimagga, dependent upon great purity of mind and intense concentration (samādhi). This may be one reason, in addition to widespread positive disbelief, why such phenomena are so rare nowadays. 
     A saint who has cultivated his or her mind to the extent that he or she can, say, look into another person's mind and see where they are stuck, or, like Sai Baba was reportedly able to do, even to materialize solid objects, has not really acquired a new power, but has simply cleared away the rubbish which had previously obscured it. The more evolved one is, the fewer mind-made limitations one has. After all, Infinity is flowing through us all the time. An unenlightened saint who still cherishes a sense of self, however, may still exercise some power of will over the exercise of these powers. 
     I may as well add that this issue of intensive mental cultivation and purity may help to explain why Western teachers who claim, or are claimed, to be enlightened, or just very highly advanced, tend to be what in Theravada is called "dry-visioned"—that is, highly advanced without having corresponding psychic powers. I would imagine that strange coincidences ("synchronicity") happen all the time around such people, yet as far as I have heard, people like Eckhart Tolle, Paul Lowe, and Byron Katie do not have a reputation for performing miracles. On the other hand, many Eastern renunciants like Neem Karoli Baba and Sai Baba allegedly had miracles happening around them all the time. Westerners, even those who experience some kind of transcendent breakthrough, tend not to have dedicated nearly so much effort into cultivating deep concentrative states, or into purifying their mind and body sufficiently to cultivate them. Furthermore, they live in a culture which, for the most part, considers such things as psychic powers not to exist anyway. A wall of disbelief is still a very effective wall. The deep need for the miraculous in Western humanity has to manifest itself in a way that Western disbelief can accept, mainly in the form of the miracles of technology. This computer that I am typing on now, to me, is a miracle. But it is a miracle much limited by the limitations of modern belief.
     Another possible reason why saintly people from spiritually-oriented cultures are more likely to have psychic powers, which may, maybe paradoxically, go hand in hand with the former explanation, is that people are more likely to have faith in saintly people. They are more likely to believe that this person is able to perform miracles or psychic feats. Those of you who have read the Bible may recall that after Jesus would heal a sick person, the person would often thank him, whereupon Jesus would reply that it was that person's own faith that had healed him or her. Also, there is the story of Jesus's return to his own home town of Nazareth, where the people didn't see him as an inspired prophet, but just as an uppity carpenter—the result of which being that he was unable to perform many miracles there. He healed a few sick people, cast out a demon or two, and went away, saying, "No prophet is without honor except in his own home town." Nowadays the proverb could be modified to say that no prophet is without honor except in a place that is westernized. In a culture without veneration, nobody is venerable; in a culture without divinity, nothing and nobody is sacred. Our thoughts have incredible power to condition our world, and if someone believes in you, it makes you stronger.  
     When a being evolves (or whatever happens) to the state of being fully enlightened, there would seem to be some fundamental differences from the unenlightened variety of psychic power, since 1) enlightened beings cherish no sense of self, or of any doer of any action; 2) they do not create karma either, and thus presumably perform no volitional actions at all (karma and volition being essentially identical); and 3) they have knocked down all barriers against Infinity, or at least have transcended them, so that the flow of Infinity (if it can be called a "flow") moves through them without obstruction. So it would seem that the "miracles" associated with some enlightened being or other are not actually done by them, but spontaneously happen, effortlessly, in accordance with the karma of those around them. Neem Karoli Baba, who was a constant focus of seemingly impossible occurrences, often denied doing anything, insisting, "sub ishwar hai," or, "It's all God." Following are a couple of examples of his behavior, extracted from Ram Dass's beautiful, graceful, magnificent book Miracle of Love: Stories about Neem Karoli Baba.

     On one occasion a caravan of army trucks stopped at the gate, and hundreds of soldiers came and stood in line. Maharajji was talking to a farmer sitting beside him. One by one the soldiers and officers came forward, bent over and touched Maharajji's feet, looked at him for another moment, and then turned away. That experience was all most of them seemed to want. But every so often one would come forward who seemed different—perhaps seeming to have a bit more light or perhaps seeming to suffer more. Many times I watched as such a person bent forward. Maharajji would hit him on the head, or give him a flower, or interrupt his conversation to say something to him, such as, "Your mother will be all right," or "You shouldn't fight with your superiors," or "You love God very much." We could see only the tiniest fraction of what Maharajji saw.
     The soldiers wanted pictures of Hanuman (the protecting deity of the Indian army) and of Maharajji, to carry as protection in war. Maharajji said, "The army has good and simple and spiritual men." It was not as if Maharajji were "deciding" to do this or that; rather, the nature of the seeker was eliciting from him, as from a mirror, this or that response.

     A number of us Westerners were meditating together at a Buddhist ashram in Bodh Gaya. After a time, some of us were ready to take a break and go on to Delhi, several hundred miles away, to celebrate Shiva's birthday. One of the women in the group, who had come to India overland by charter bus, reported that the bus driver wanted to hang out with us, too. So thirty-four of us left Bodh Gaya and met the bus in Benares and started to drive to Delhi. 
     One of the men in the group, Danny, had left the courses briefly in the middle to visit Allahabad, in order to experience a Kumbha Mela. He had returned deeply impressed and bringing us each small medallions depicting the monkey, Hanuman, which he had purchased on the mela grounds. 
     When it turned out that the bus route went right by Allahabad, Danny pressed us to visit the mela grounds. I protested that the mela was now over and it would just be an empty piece of river bank. But he pointed out that it was one of the most sacred spots in India. Some of us were tired, for it was only our first day out in the world after such sustained meditation practice, and all we really wanted was to get to the dharmasalla where we planned to stay overnight. The thought of even driving the few miles out of our way to get to the river was not appealing, and yet it was a very holy place. I weighed the merits of the alternatives and finally agreed that we should go to the river for a brief stop to watch the sunset. 
     As we approached and drove down into the mela grounds, which were now quite deserted, the driver asked where he should park. Danny pointed to a place that he said was near a Hanuman temple and also was the spot where he had purchased the small medallions. 
     As the bus was pulling up to that spot, someone yelled, "There's Maharajji!"
     Sure enough, walking right by the bus with Dada, there he was. We all scrambled off the bus and rushed to his feet. I was having an hysterical crying-laughing fit. I remember kissing his feet in bliss and at the same moment my mind being aware that the spot of sand on which he was standing smelled strongly of urine. 
     Dada later told us that as the bus came into view, Maharajji had said, "Well, they've come." 
     Maharajji instructed us to follow them, and the bus followed the bicycle rickshaw to Dada's house on the suburban street of this great university city. Within minutes we were given food, and arrangements were made for us to lodge at a nearby estate with another devotee. I was told that since morning the servants had been preparing food under Maharajji's orders in anticipation of our coming. But if that were so, which of us thought he was making a decision in the bus about whether to visit the mela grounds? Apparently all was not as I "thought" it was.

     Setting aside alleged feats of teleportation, being in multiple places simultaneously, walking on water, defying the law of conservation of matter by multiplying food, etc., there is nothing against the laws of physics for someone to say, for example, "You were thinking about your mother," even if the other person really had been thinking of her, with no ordinary way for the first person to know. It could just be a remarkable coincidence, a "lucky guess." I suspect that this is the way it works. The enlightened being isn't "doing" anything; subjectively at least, there's nobody even there. An enlightened being is nobody, except maybe for a reflection of whomever he or she is interacting with. The sage simply responds spontaneously, not necessarily knowing or not knowing any particular thing, and it just happens, repeatedly, to blow people's minds. Without rigidly narrow-minded beliefs about what is possible and impossible, Infinity flows unhindered.
     For that matter, our everyday behavior and our everyday karma are manifestations of the flow of Infinity, in these latter cases flowing through the channels of our unenlightened limitations, our limiting beliefs and semiconscious habits. Even scientists may agree to this, at least to the manifestation of Infinity aspect of it. Positive disbelief is a huge creator of such channeling limitations. A thought has much greater power than almost anybody realizes. All in all, it is a good policy to be skeptical in the classical sense of the word—that is, neither believing nor disbelieving, but simply suspending judgement. After all, the Universe is absolutely Infinite, and totally beyond a blind worm's mental capacity to comprehend it fully.


  1. I really enjoy reading you blog and other writings(especially your journal ). I would love to read a detailed autobiography, as I'm sure many would. Any plans to write one? You should really consider it.

    1. Well, you're not the first person to suggest it, and it probably would be fun to write...but I wouldn't want to go through all the work to write a book that only a few people would read. I once told another person who made the same suggestion that if this blog ever starts getting a thousand hits per day (and it gets nowhere near that now), then I'd write it. I'm kind of lazy, actually. I think it would be worth reading though, if I ever do write it. Interesting things just keep happening.
      (By the way, I apologize for the delay in moderating and answering your comment, but I've been away from Internet access for a few weeks.)

  2. Dear Bhante, have you ever witnessed any individuals with psychic power in your life?

    1. Well, EVERYBODY has psychic power! Each one of us creates a whole world with the power of our mind.

      But if you mean someone who reads minds, or manifests solid objects, or teleports, etc., I don't really know. I've been told that a few of the monks I have met have psychic powers, like the late Shway Oo Min Sayadaw, and I've met Amma, and even my father apparently had some psychic talent, but there is no proof.

      It may be that a tendency for strange coincidences or synchronicity to occur around someone is an elementary form of psychic power, not entirely conscious to the ego, in which case I've known a few.