Posts Tagged ‘Stage Magic’

Supernatural and Psychic Powers in Buddhism

November 24, 2020

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.

‘I’ Obituary for Stage Magician and Sceptic James Randi

October 26, 2020

Last Tuesday, 20th October 2020, the stage magician and sceptic James Randi passed away at the age of 92. Randy was a controversial. After starting out as a stage magician, Randi turned to exposing fake psychics. He was a prominent member of the Sceptics’ organisation CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims Of the Paranormal, along with scientist and broadcaster Carl Sagan and the mathematician Martin Gardner. CSICOP’s founders were alarmed at the growth of interest in the occult. Sagan, a Humanist, published his attack on the supernatural in the Demon Haunted World. He seemed to be frightened that we were entering a new Dark Age of superstition, where science and rationality would be forgotten, and in which people would begin their day by poring over their horoscopes.

The I published this obituary of Randi in their weekend edition for 24th-25th October 2020, reprinted from the Washington Post. It runs

James Randi, who has died aged 92, was an internationally acclaimed magician and escape artist who spent much of his career debunking all things paranormal – from spoon bending and water dowsing to spirit channelling and faith healing.

Randall James Ham Hamilton Zwinge was born in Toronto in 1928. A child prodigy, he was shy and often lonely. Bored by rote classroom learning, he sought refuge in the library. At a young age, he developed an interest in magic, and at 17 he dropped out of high school, turned down several college scholarships and joined a travelling carnival as junior magician.

He overcame a stammer and fear of speaking in public, affected a turban and goatee, and honed his illusionist skills under a series of stage names, including Zo-Ran, Prince Iblis, Telepath and the Great Randall.

After a stint at faking clairvoyance, in which many took his prophecies seriously – he correctly predicted the winner of baseball’s World Series in 1949, for example – he said he was unable to persuade believerss that his powers were strictly terrestrial. He said he “couldn’t live that kind of lie” and returned to conventional magic as The Amazing Randi.

He also became an escape artist and held Guinness world records for surviving the longest time inside a block of ice (55 minutes) and for being sealed the longest in an underwater coffin (one hour and 44 minutes), breaking a record set by Harry Houdini.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s Randi’s many appearances on television made him a fixture of prime time entertainment. In 1973 he toured with heavy metal rock star Alice Cooper as an executioner simulating the beheading of the singer at each performance.

Randi cheerfully described himself as a “liar” and “cheat” in mock recognition of his magician’s skills at duping people into thinking they had seen something inexplicable when it was, in fact, the result of simple physical deception. He was equally dismissive of psychics, seers and soothsayers. “The difference between them and me,” Randi told The New York Times in 1981, “is that I admit that I’m a charlatan. They don’t. I don’t have time for things that go bump in the night.”

Randi and the research organisation he helped found in 1976, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, offered payouts ranging up to $1m (£77,000) to anyone who could demonstrate a supernatural or paranormal phenomenon under controlled conditions. While he had many takers, he said, none of them earned a cent.

In 2010, at the age of 81, Randi publicly announced he was gay. He married a Venezuelan artist, Deyvi Pena in 2013. The following year, film-maker Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein released An Honest Liar, a documentary of Randi’s life.

I first became aware of Randi in the early 1980s, when he appeared in the pages of the Absurder attacking Doris Stokes. Stokes was a medium, who was then in news, much like Derek Acorah and other celebrity psychics a few years ago. Randi showed that much of her comments and remarks when she was supposedly getting in touch with the dead were ‘bunkum statements’. They sounded true and unique to the reader or listener, but they were actually vague and described the way most people felt. Her descriptions of the deceased and the questions she asked her audience were also so vague that they would apply to someone there, who would then become convinced that Stokes was genuinely in contact with a dead friend or relative.

Several times Randi’s own outspoken comment about those he judged to be frauds landed him in legal. In one case, he was sued for libel by a man he claimed was called by the police ‘the shopping mall molester’. Er, not quite. The target of Randi’s wrath had been arrested for sexually assaulting a 12 or 13 year old girl in a shopping centre. But he hadn’t been charged with the offence, as it was dropped due to plea bargaining. And because he hadn’t been charged with it, Randi’s comments were technically libel.

He also got into similar trouble with Uri Geller. He called him a fraud, at which Geller sued him in every country in the world. This resulted in Randi settling out of court with the notorious spoon-bender.

Actually, I think Randi is probably right here. Geller’s most famous trick of bending spoons has been around since at least in the 18th century. It’s mentioned in a book of such amusements from that time, Rational Recreations. Geller was also successfully sued in the 1970s or so by an Israeli engineering student for misleading advertising. Geller’s publicity claimed his act presented overwhelming proof of the paranormal. The student went to see it and wasn’t impressed. He sued, claiming that all he’d seen was standard stage magic. The beak concurred, and judged in his favour.

There was also a scandal a few years ago when it turned out that Randi’s partner was actually an illegal immigrant, who was living in the US under an identity he’d stolen.

Randi was a colourful figure, but I was never a fan of his. While I agree that fake psychics and mediums certainly exist, and should be exposed because of the way they exploit the grieving and vulnerable, I don’t share his dismissal of the supernatural. I think it’s genuine, but that its very nature makes scientific verification extremely difficult, if not impossible. CSICOP also came off as arrogant, smug and vindictive in their attacks on the paranormal and its believers and practitioners. So much so that they were seen as a kind of scientific witch hunt by their victims. A few years ago the organisation changed its name to CSI, which stands for the Committee for Scientific Investigation. And not Crime Scene Investigation. The name change was not occasioned because there was a cop drama with that acronym as its title playing at the time.

So RIP James Randi. He was a colourful character, who entertained millions, particularly in his bust-up with Geller. Gray Barker, the former Ufologist who began the Men In Black myth with his book They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers, took great pleasure in Randi’s antics, calling him ‘the Amusing Randi’. But I leave to the reader to decide for themselves whether the paranormal exists. And not everybody who believes in it deserves sneers and ridicule.

My Review of Russian UFO Conspiracy Book Now Up At Magonia Blog

September 12, 2019

My review of Nick Redfern’s Flying Saucers from the Kremlin (Lisa Hagen Books 2019) is now up at Magonia Review of Books. Magonia was a small press UFO magazine, which ran from the 1980s to the early part of this century. It took the psycho-social view of the UFO phenomenon. This is a sceptical view which sees the UFO phenomenon as an internal experience generated by poorly understood psychological mechanism, whose imagery was drawn from folklore and Science Fiction. It took the name ‘Magonia’ from Jacques Vallee’s groundbreaking UFO book, Passport to Magonia. Vallee, a French-American astronomer and computer scientist, along with the American journalist and writer on the weird and Fortean, John Keel, took the view that UFOs weren’t real, mechanical spacecraft piloted by beings from other worlds, but were created by the same paranormal phenomenon behind encounters with fairies and other paranormal entities. The name ‘Magonia’ itself comes from a statement by a sceptical 7th-8th century Frankish bishop, that the peasants believed that storms were caused by men in flying ships, who came from a country called Magonia.

The magazine didn’t just discuss UFOs. It also covered other paranormal phenomena and subjects, such as witchcraft. It provided a very necessary sceptical corrective to the Satanism scare of the ’80s and ’90s. This was a moral panic generated by conspiracy theories, largely from the Christian right but also from some feminists, that Satanic groups were sexually abusing and ritually sacrificing children. The Fontaine Report, published by the British government over 20 years ago now, concluded that there was no organised Satanic conspiracy. This effectively ended a real witch-hunt, which had seen innocent men and women accused of terrible crimes through warped, uncorroborated testimony. It needs to be said, however, that sociologists, social workers and law enforcement authorities do recognise that there are evil or disturbed individuals responsible for horrific crimes, including the molestation of children, who are or consider themselves Satanists. But the idea of a multigenerational Satanic conspiracy is absolutely false. See Jeffrey S. Victor’s excellent Satanic Panic.

Nick Redfern is a British paranormal investigator now resident in Texas. In this book, subtitled ‘UFOs, Russian Meddling, Soviet Spies & Cold War Secrets’, he proposes that while the UFO phenomenon is real, the terrible Russkies have been manipulating it to destabilise America and her allies. This comes from the Russians attempting to interfere in the American presidential elections a few years ago. In fact, the book doesn’t actually show that the Russians have. Rather it shows that the FBI, Airforce Intelligence and CIA believed they were. Prominent figures in the UFO milieu were suspected of Russian sympathies, and investigated and question. George Adamski, the old fraud who claimed he’d met space people from Venus and Mars, was investigated because he was recorded making pro-Soviet statements. Apparently he believed that the space people were so much more advanced than us that they were Communists, and that in a coming conflict Russia would defeat the West. Over here, the founder and leader of the Aetherius Society, George King, who also channeled messages from benevolent space people on Venus and Mars, was also investigation by special branch. This is because one of the messages from Aetherius called on Britain to respond to peace overtures from the Russians. This was seized on by the Empire News, which, as its name suggests, was a right-wing British rag, that denounced King for having subversive, pro-Commie ideas and reported him to the rozzers. King willingly cooperated with the cops, and pointed out that his was a religious and occult, not political organisation. But he and his followers were still kept under surveillance because they, like many concerned people, joined the CND marches.

It’s at this point that Redfern repeats the Sunset Times slur about the late Labour leader, Michael Foot. Foot also joined these marches, and the former Soviet spy chief, Oleg Gordievsky, had declared that Foot was a KGB spy with the codename ‘Comrade Boot’. It’s malign rubbish. Redfern notes that Foot sued the Sunset Times for libel and won. But he prefers to believe Gordievsky, because Gordievsky was right about everything else. So say. Actually, Gordievsky himself was a self-confessed liar, and there’s absolutely no corroborating evidence at all. And rather than being pro-Soviet, Foot was so critical of the lack of freedom of conscience in the USSR that he alarmed many of his Labour colleagues, who were afraid he would harm diplomatic relations. The accusation just looks like more Tory/ IRD black propaganda against Labour.

Other people in the UFO milieu also had their collar felt. One investigator, who told the authorities that he had met a group of four men, who were very determined that he should give his talks a pro-Russian, pro-Communist slant, was interrogated by a strange in a bar on his own patriotism. The man claimed to be a fellow investigator with important information, and persuaded him to take a pill that left his drugged and disorientated. Redfern connects this the MK Ultra mind control projects under CIA direction at the time, which also used LSD and other drugs.

But if Redfern doesn’t quite show that the Russians are manipulating the phenomena through fake testimony and hoax encounters, he presents a very strong case that the Americans were doing so. During the Second World War, Neville Maskelyn, a British stage magician, worked with the armed forces on creating illusions to deceive the Axis forces. One of these was a tall, walking automaton to impersonate the Devil, which was used to terrify the Fascists in Sicily. Redfern notes the similarity between this robot, and the Flatwoods monster that later appeared in America. The Project Serpo documents, which supposedly show how a group of American squaddies had gone back to the Alien homeworld, were cooked up by one of the classic SF writers, who was also a CIA agent. And the scientist Paul Bennewitz was deliberately given fake testimony and disinformation about captured aliens and crashed saucers by members of the agency, which eventually sent the poor bloke mad. He was targeted because he was convinced the saucers and the aliens were kept on a nearby airforce base. The American military was worried that, although he wouldn’t find any evidence of aliens, he might dig up military secrets which would be useful to the Russians. And so they set about destroying him by telling him fake stories, which he wanted to hear. And obviously, there’s more.

It’s extremely interesting reading, but Redfern does follow the conventional attitude to Russian. The country was a threat under Communism, and is now, despite the fact that Communism has fallen. He is silent about the plentiful evidence for American destabilisation of foreign regimes right around the world during the Cold War. This included interference in elections and outright coups. The most notorious of these in South America were the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile by General Pinochet, and Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala. He also doesn’t mention recent allegations, backed up with very strong evidence, that the US under Hillary Clinton manufactured the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine in 2012 to overthrow the ruling pro-Russian president and install another, who favoured America and the West.

If you want to read my review, it’s at

http://pelicanist.blogspot.com/2019/09/ufology-meets-kremlinology.html