Monday, 26 July 2010

The Supernatural

(Cross Posted at Reformed Buddhist)

Perhaps I've been naive about just how different some schools of Buddhism are when compared to each other. After reading through the comments of this post Barbara made, I was surprised by not only how literal some read into the sutra's, but also how a few of them put a lot of faith in credit in some kinds of mystical supernatural attainments. After digging around a bit, I did notice there is quite the following for this type of belief in the supernatural powers of a Buddha. As I understand it, the esoteric teachings of the supernatural and metaphysical, or as they are sometimes called the siddhi, pre-date Siddhartha Gautama, and have roots deep within Hindu mysticism. (I realize I am a bit out of my depth in the understanding of these esoteric teachings, so feel free to correct me if I am off base.) They are apparently broken into two parts:

Ordinary Supernatural - which just means attainment, success or accomplishment within life in general.
Supreme Supernatural - which seem to have several layers of different powers one can obtain as a Buddha or Bodhisattva. Some examples would be levitation, mind reading and seeing the past and future, etc.

In the Tantric traditions, these all seem to revolve around the concepts of a kind of tabulation of positive and negative Karma and a literal rebirth. I stumbled across this site that explains this understanding as taught in many of the Tibetan traditoins a bit more in-depth.
Do Buddhists advocate supernatural powers? Actually, this is not a matter of advocating or not advocating. Rather, supernatural powers are that which everyone who is accomplished in the dharma possesses. Such powers are the manifestation of realization achieved through cultivation. They are phenomena that exist in the course of cultivation but are not the goal of cultivation, which is liberation from the cycle of birth and death. They are by-products that arise during one’s practice. These by-products called supernatural phenomena naturally exist in all liberating paths within the Buddha-dharma. Becoming attached to these by-products and regarding them as the goal is heretical supernatural powers. Applying these by-products in a free and unattached way and regarding them as illusory is treating supernatural powers based on the correct Buddha-dharma view.

Sakyamuni Buddha manifested supernatural powers and also was against supernatural powers. Each of those two tacks reflects different underlying karmic conditions. To those with higher vehicle (Mahayana) faculties, the Buddha spoke of supernatural powers as enjoyment resulting from incredible realization and the free and unattached application of samadhi. Examples of this are in the Lotus Sutra, the Samyuktagama Sutra, and other sutras. To those practitioners with low faculties, the Buddha spoke of not being attached to supernatural powers in order to reach the goal of realizing emptiness. An example of this is in the Shurangama Sutra.

Anyone with low faculties who wants to become a Buddha must go through the stage of cultivation corresponding to those with high faculties. In one’s course of cultivation, this is analogous to going from one city to another city. If one does not travel along the pathway between the two cities, one will not reach that other city. When one is walking toward that other city, one will certainly see and encounter all of the phenomena that are on the way. This is like the supernatural phenomena that arise in the course of one’s cultivation when wisdom is being opened. If one does not experience such phenomena that arise during the cultivation process, then one will not reach the other shore of liberation. Because one has not traversed the path of the Buddha-dharma leading to liberation, one cannot encounter phenomena that occur while traversing that path. That is why such a person has not experienced the stage in the process whereby wisdom is opened and supernatural powers are realized. Thus, all Buddhist who become accomplished in the dharma must go through the stage of supernatural powers.

Is it true that the authentic Buddha-dharma does not speak of supernatural powers? If that were the case, then why did the great leader of Buddhism, Sakyamuni Buddha, manifest supernatural powers everywhere? Why did he even manifest great supernatural powers right before entering nirvana? What crazed and demonic person would dare say that Sakyamuni Buddha did not practice the true Buddha-dharma? Just think. If someone with great accomplishment in the dharma did not have any supernatural realization powers, what would be the difference between that person and an ordinary person who had not learned Buddhism?
The Mahayana branch of Buddhism has obviously splintered into multiple and varied paths over the past 1,500 years, given the vast differences between sects such as Pure Land, Zen, Nichiren and the esoteric traditions. While the above does emphasize removing expectations of these powers being the goal of an esoteric practice, this explanation certainly lays the foundation for a student to view their Buddhist practice as a much more abstruse, abstract and mystical pursuit.

While I fully respect those that take these mystical parts very seriously and literally, as a student of Zen, this all seems to be rather extra, very extra. In Zen, we would say their is no abiding self to attain these things, and, to put it mildly, de-emphasizes any special qualities of attainment. In a lecture Dogen gave called Fukanzazengi, he directly addresses this issue of the supernatural;
The zazen I speak of is not meditation practice. It is simply the Dharma gate of joyful ease, the practice-realization of totally culminated enlightenment. It is the koan realized, traps and snares can never reach it. If you grasp the point, you are like a dragon gaining the water, like a tiger taking to the mountains. For you must know that the true Dharma appears of itself, so that from the start dullness and distraction are struck aside.

When you arise from sitting, move slowly and quietly, calmly and deliberately. Do not rise suddenly or abruptly. In surveying the past, we find that transcendence of both mundane and sacred, and dying while either sitting or standing, have all depended entirely on the power of zazen.

In addition, triggering awakening with a finger, a banner, a needle, or a mallet, and effecting realization with a whisk, a fist, a staff, or a shout - these cannot be understood by discriminative thinking, much less can they be known through the practice of supernatural power. They must represent conduct beyond seeing and hearing. Are they not a standard prior to knowledge and views?
As I understand it, what Dogen is saying is, it is not important whether or not mystical or supernatural abilities exist, it is very much besides the point of practice. He goes on:
You've got what you need, the treasure of this body and birth, so don't waste your time. Keep to this as the basis of the Way of Awake Awareness. Don't be attracted by just a spark from the flint. Anyway, your body is like dew on the grass, your life a flash of lightning; vain for a moment and then vanished in an instant.

You who are in this excellent lineage of Zen, don't blindly grope only a part of the elephant or fear the true dragon. Put all of yourself into this Way which directly presents your own nature. Be grateful to those who have come before and have done what was to be done. Align yourself with the enlightenment of the Awakened Ones and take your place in this samadhi-lineage. Practice in this way and you'll be what they are. The doors of the treasure house will fall open for you to do with as you will.
So I guess the questions could be asked; Can Zen be seen as just picking and choosing the parts of the Buddhist tradition that fit its dotrine, as it was handed down over the centuries? Or are the esoteric traditions reading the sutra's too literally, and obscuring the point that the Shakyamuni Buddha was making 2,500 years ago?


  1. According to the earliest suttas Shakyamuni Buddha did have supernatural powers, but only manifested them rarely - the only instance I can think of was in order to make a teaching point. He taught however that supernatural powers are irrelevant and potentially a distraction. What Dogen says seems to be in line with that. So I don't see any cherry-picking there.

    On the other hand, I don't think that just because we find a great deal of valuable wisdom in the Dharma that we need to swallow the whole lot uncritically. I personally don't regard the suttas and sutras or even the Buddha himself as infallible. There are a number of glaring inaccuracies about Buddhist geography and cosmology, for example - see

  2. Hello!

    I'd like to share that the siddhis of the Yoga Tradition (including the Buddhist Yoga Tradition), are not technically understood as 'supernatural' within the Indian cultural context in the way most contemporary Westerners use the term

    First, I want to be clear: I do NOT believe that siddhis such as mind-reading, levitation or bilocation are 'literally real.' That said, in the Indian cultural sphere, such 'powers' are not 'supernatural' as in 'above' or 'beyond' the natural realm. They are very much part of the natural realm, but they are understood as very subtle aspects of nature.

    It is believed that through deep concentration and other yogic methods, these more subtle natural aspects can be developed. BUT, all yoga traditions (Classical Yoga, Buddhism etc) see them as possibly obstacles to liberation/realization BECAUSE they are of 'nature' and NOT of the realm of liberation.

    I think all too many contemporary Buddhists are quite ignorant of the dualism of early Buddhism. Nirvana and Samsara are quite distinct in early Buddhism (as Purusha and Prakriti are for Patanjali). The siddhis are of Samsara, thus are NOT supernatural, and have nothing ultimately to do with liberation.

    poep sa frank jude