Supernatural and Psychic Powers in Buddhism

Here’s something a bit different before I get on to the heavy political stuff. It seems that Buddhism has a particular term for the supernatural powers of its mystics and holy men and women. This is iddhi, rddhi, from the Pali and Sanskrit words ardh, ‘grow’, ‘increase’, ‘prosper’, ‘succeed’. The entry for it in Bowker’s Dictionary of World Religions, which describes it as

Paranormal, psychic or magic power in Buddhism, where it is one of the six kinds of higher iknowledge (abhinna). Canonical writings contain a standard list of eight forms of iddhi: the power to (i) replicate and project bodily-images of oneself, (ii) make oneself invisible, (iii) pass through solid objects, (iv) sink into solid ground, (v) walk on water, (vi) fly; (vii) touch the sun and moon with one hand, (viii) ascend to the world of the god Brahma in the highest heavens. They are described in e.g. Vissudhimagga 12. These powers were said to become available to the meditator upon achieving the the fourth jnana. They were possessed by the Buddha and many of his monks and nuns. However, the Buddha regarded them equivocally because some non-Buddhist ascetics possessed them too; they were a sign of meditational attainment only, and not a spiritual qualification; and they could be put to bad as well as good use. He, therefore, attempted to lessen their importance by making it an offence for monks or nuns to display them before layfolk, and by providing an alternative interpretation of iddhi to mean the application of equanimity (upekkha) and mindfulness (sati) in the face of all situations. Nevertheless in Vajrayana they are prominent as a demonstration of perfect control over the body. (p. 464).

Knowledge gained through paranormal perception is also included as a form of knowledge, alongside more conventional forms, in the Buddhist idea of knowledge, jnana, from the Sanskrit for ‘knowing’. The paragraph on this in the article on Jnana in The Dictionary of World Religions says

Knowledge based on extra-sensory perception is one form of paranormal knowledge . This is called ‘going beyond the human’ (atikkanta manusaka, Digha Nikaya 1. 82). Five kinds of higher knowledge (pancabhinna) fall into this category (Anguttara Nikaya 2. 17-19). These are (i) psychic power (iddhi-vidha), (ii) divine ear (dibbasota); (iii) telepathic knowledge (cetopariyata nana), (iv) knowledge of previous existence (pubbenivasanussati), and (v) clairvoyance (dibbacakkhu) One can attain this state if one’s mind is purified of five impediments (pancanivarana, see Nivaranas – covetousness, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, and doubt, Majjhima Nikaya 1. 181,270, 276) and on attaining the fourth Jhana. (p.504).

I think that fascination with the supposed paranormal powers acquired through Buddhist meditation and similar disciplines in Hinduism was one the features that attracted westerners to these religions from the 19th century onwards. They were certainly influential in the growth of the New Age religions, like Theosophy, although this was strongly influenced by Hinduism rather than Buddhism. The French explorer Alexandra David-Neel popularised these powers in her account of her sojourn in Tibet. Such ideas have also had their effects on comics, Science Fiction and Fantasy. The Marvel superhero, Dr. Strange, ‘Master of the Mystic Arts’, gained them through studying under the Ancient One in Tibet. Some of the accounts of Buddhist sages with these powers seem to me to be just legends, but if there are any adepts who truly have them, and could demonstrate them in a laboratory and before stage magicians, so there could be no possibility of cheating, we might be on the way to proving the existence of the paranormal at last.

But that might also be a shock to the secular, atheist materialists, who use Buddhist ideas about mindfulness for nothing more than attaining inner peace. You can imagine the panic it would cause members of the Skeptics’ movement if suddenly they found themselves able to read minds, make themselves invisible, walk on water and so on.

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One Response to “Supernatural and Psychic Powers in Buddhism”

  1. trev Says:

    That’s very interesting. There is a Buddhist centre just around the corner from my house and I often see the nun who runs it out & about walking the area so have got to know her and spoke many times. I told her that I have had many psychic experiences throughout my life, including O.O.B.E.s and have experienced a visionary past-life recall on one occasion where I was able to view one of my past lives in great detail. She said she’s never had such experiences and knows nothing of her past lives, yet she is at a quite advanced level and both practices and teaches Meditation. I’ve never formerly practiced Meditation but on occasion have spontaneously entered into a trance-like state when least expected or simply whilst relaxing. Likewise with the psychic experiences I’ve had, they just happen out of the blue, often years apart, and it’s not something that I have any control of or am able to do at will. Buddhists also believe in the existence of life in other Dimensions, such as UFOs, as my local nun once explained to me, though she hasn’t seen a UFO but I have.

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