Sunday, 30 September 2012
Buddhism and UFOs
“Buddhism” is a broad term that encompasses many different cultural traditions, which differ widely in their superficial trappings but share a common core of ethical and psychological teachings. My understanding (although I may be wrong, since I’m not an expert) is that the “superficial trappings” are intended to be symbolic only, and tailored to the cultural beliefs of the particular audience they were aimed at. An analogy that is often used is that of a raft. If you want to get from one side of a river to the other, you will make a raft of whatever material is available, but once the raft has got you safely to the other side you will discard it – not carry it around with you for the rest of your life. Clinging too strongly to the mythological, metaphysical or cosmological trappings of Buddhism is discouraged, because ultimately they are irrelevant to the deep psychological and moral truths that the teaching is trying to drive you towards.
But more than any other Buddhist writer I’ve come across, Brian Ruhe does have a deep and literal belief in the mythological, metaphysical and cosmological trappings of the particular form of Buddhism that he subscribes to. In his case, this is Theravada Buddhism – the earliest form of Buddhist teaching, which originated in India 2500 years ago. At that time the dominant culture of India was Brahmanism – a precursor of modern Hinduism – so not surprisingly most of the Theravada writings are steeped in Brahmanical mythology and cosmology (though not all of them – when the Buddha preaches to sun-worshippers or fire-worshippers or ancestor-worshippers or atheists he talks to these groups in their own terms, not those of Brahmanism). But Brian Ruhe, unless he’s indulging in a level of deadpan irony which is over my head, believes in the literal truth of the various heavenly realms and supernatural beings that are spoken of in the Theravada canon.
Hopefully you can see where this is leading, and that I’m finally getting around to the subject of this post. Based on the popular mythological beliefs current in India when they were first written down, the Theravada scriptures talk a lot about “devas” – a term that is often translated as “gods” (and probably comes from the same root as our word “deity”), but is closer in concept to the Western idea of “angels”. These are supernatural beings that are superior in many ways to human beings, but far from being omnipotent, who normally reside on higher planes of existence but can descend down to the mundane world and appear to mortals when they want to. Ergo, in Brian Ruhe’s world-view, devas are UFOs and UFOs are devas. It’s as simple as that.
On the face of it, Ruhe’s theory is simply saying that “Unexplained speculative phenomenon A can be explained in terms of unexplained speculative phenomenon B”... which is a perfectly valid statement but not a particularly helpful one. But at another level, there may be a lot of truth in what he says. Practitioners of Theravada Buddhism sometimes claim to experience contact with devas and deva-worlds while they are in a trance-like state during meditation. Objectively, this can be dismissed as a form of lucid dreaming or self-hypnosis, but there may well be an underlying mystical experience – that has nothing to do with devas or UFOs – that the meditators are interpreting in terms of the cultural beliefs and expectations that are most familiar to them. Many westerners having exactly the same subjective experience might well objectivize it in terms of a UFO or alien abduction.