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Friday 20 May 2011

Paranormal Classification, circa 250 BC

The earliest Buddhist writings, called "suttas", are presented in the form of discourses reputedly given by the Buddha himself. However, they probably date from a couple of centuries after the Buddha's time, during the reign of King Asoka the Great in the middle of the 3rd century BC (the extract from the suttas shown above is taken from a later Chinese copy, circa 400 AD).

Traditionally, the suttas are divided into a number of collections, of which the first is called the Digha Nikaya. Of the suttas in this collection, the second is called the Samaññaphala Sutta... which can be translated as "A Discourse on the Fruits of Contemplative Life". In it, the Buddha describes the various advanced states of consciousness that can be attained through assiduous meditation. Amongst these is Abhiñña (usually translated as "direct knowledge") -- whose Fortean relevance will become apparent when it is broken down into its constituent components:

1. Supernormal Powers
a. Having been one he becomes many; having been many he becomes one.
b. He appears; he disappears.
c. He goes unimpeded through walls as if through space.
d. He dives in and out of the earth as if it were water.
e. He walks on water as if it were dry land.
f. Sitting cross-legged he flies through the air like a bird.
g. With his hand he touches the sun and moon.
h. He exercises bodily influence throughout the created world.

2. The Divine Ear
  • He hears subtle and coarse sounds, both far and near.

3. The Knowledge of Other Minds
  • -He reads the thoughts of others, and knows their state of mind.

4. The Recollection of Past Lives
  • He knows his past births, and the details of those births.

5. The Divine Eye
  • He sees heavenly and earthly events, both far and near.

Of these, only 1g seems unfamiliar (and indeed ludicrous) to a modern reader. Apart from that, all the commonly accepted paranormal classifications are there: Bilocation (1a), Teleportation (1b), Astral Projection (1c/d), Levitation (1e/f), Telekinesis (1h), Clairaudience (2), Telepathy (3), Past-Life Recall (4) and Clairvoyance (5)!


Rip Parker said...



Andrew May said...

"No smoke without fire"... that's an interesting comment, and the fact that the same ideas crop up in so many cultures certainly gives one pause for thought.

Anonymous said...

touching the sun and moon might be speaking metaphorically about remote viewing.

Andrew May said...

That would be a neat solution if we wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt! In reality, I suspect they thought (in common with most non-scientific cultures) that the Sun and Moon were about fifty miles away -- so touching them while still standing on the Earth would be a superhuman but not impossible feat (like Reed Richards in the Fantastic Four)!

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't call it necessarily non-scientific but proto-scientific. The buddha did come up with a systematized study of the mind from the first person.

This is the standard set of supranormal powers that are described throughout the Suttas and their commentaries. (Another notable but later source is the Vishuddhimagga.) As a practitioner, you're counseled against cultivating these for the sake of power because it's just another ego-attachment--and you might be chasing after this stuff forever. I met a monk once who had a "breakthrough" after which he could see past lives or "karma" (as he described it) of himself and others. He eventually said it was fruitless and the novelty wears off fast. I am pretty skeptical myself.

Andrew May said...

That's interesting. I've never seen these powers discussed outside the Pali primary sources... I'd assumed they were a bit of an embarrassment to modern practitioners! I first encountered the list in the Visuddhimagga, which I've got on my bookshelf, but the discussion there is (at the risk of offending Buddhaghosa fans) rather long-winded to say the least. So I went back to the Digha version which I found on the web.

Anonymous said...

Oh, well, I am also thinking of maybe Surangama Sutra, which is admittedly apocryphal (as are many sutras though) but definitely not Pali. I see references to some of those things discussed in there as well although the Chinese may have obfuscated them a bit.

Andrew May said...

I'm sure you're right - I'm not very well-versed in Mahayana sutras. I like the Pali writings, particularly the Abhidhamma, because of their objective, analytical style (proto-scientific, to use your phrase!) and they're generally devoid of myth and mysticism. That's what makes it so remarkable that these paranormal powers crop up there!

Gaia Fusion said...

1g- Sun and moon are tantric symbolism of internal neurological energies.

Andrew May said...

I didn't know that, but there is really very little Tantric influence or symbolism in the Theravada suttas, which is where this quote comes from. I still think the phrase was meant to be taken literally, and wouldn't have sounded as far-fetched in those days as it does today. But thanks for your thoughts on the subject!