- Supernormal Powers
June 9 & June 16, 1985
The emphasis of the Shurangama Sutra is on samadhi and the power of samadhi, the concentration of the mind. Through samadhi, the Buddha radiates his power, his teaching. Only through personal realization and experience attained through practice can samadhi be developed. Otherwise, it is impossible to achieve any real power or strength. Simply being associated with a powerful being or receiving the help of a deity is not enough.
Ananda assumed that he would be protected by the Buddha because he was his cousin as well as his constant companion. Yet Ananda succumbed to the magical powers and charms of a courtesan. His samadhi power was not strong enough to resist her.
Today I will talk about samadhi, the levels to which it can be developed, and the supernormal powers that can result from this development. I will discuss supernormal powers at three levels: ordinary sentient beings, deities, and sages.
Ordinary sentient beings may develop their own power from samadhi practice, or they may receive power from other beings as the result of prayer or mantra practice. A very old gentleman I know, Mr. Chen, told me about a Vietnamese monk who practices an esoteric form of Buddhism. He teaches his disciples to use a mantra that enables them to cure headaches and any number of ailments.
If there were a mantra that could really accomplish such miraculous cures, there would be no need for doctors and hospitals. All we would need is the mantra. But even famous lamas in Tibet can fall prey to death and disease. There is no mantra that can defend against every sickness. And without samadhi of your own, the power of a mantra received from a deity, Bodhisattva, or Buddha is limited and unreliable.
Using symbols and especially sounds to invoke the power of a deity is common in India, Tibet, and China. These practices even predate Buddhism. Deities, Bodhisattvas and Buddhas have names associated with them, much as Nagendra and Lucy have names by which they can be called. But names are only conveniences for liberated beings such as Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. They really have no use for names. However, there are mantras associated with these beings which help sentient beings reach them. Manjushri has his own mantra, as does Avalokiteshvara, and so on.
The power of a mantra varies according to the deity it represents. Actually, the name of the Bodhisattva is also his mantra. When we repeat the name of Avalokiteshvara (Kuan Yin, in Chinese), we are reciting his mantra. Recitation of names can generate some power, and this can be useful to someone who has not developed samadhi on his own.
Scientists can transmit messages from one side of the earth to the other by bouncing a signal off an orbiting satellite. Similarly, the power of a Buddha or Bodhisattva can act as a mirror to reflect and also to amplify our weaker power. A Buddha or Bodhisattva does not actually decide to help us –
his help is a natural product of his power, just as a satellite, according to its structure and design, transmits radio or television signals. Enlightened beings do not get annoyed, as some people seem to think, when we repeat their names. Making contact in this way is a very natural process.
Lesser deities know very well when they are being called. It’s a little like calling the police when you’re in trouble, and they say that they’ll be right over.
The power of deities, Bodhisattvas and Buddhas can also be transmitted through spiritual mediums. These are people who are especially receptive to spiritual transmission. The power a medium receives comes directly from a deity, Bodhisattva or Buddha; it is not the medium’s own power, no matter what he or she might think.
I am often asked if I have supernatural power, and if I can teach others to develop it. I always say, “I don’t have such power, and if I did I wouldn’t teach it to you.” Using such power would get me into trouble; and if I taught it to you, I would get you into trouble.
Throughout history, people who have used supernormal powers have found themselves in dangerous situations or met tragic ends because of their power. Even one of the Buddha’s disciples died for this reason. People who use supernormal power must contend with the law of karma. When you help someone who is sick or in danger, you intercede in the karma that was affecting that person, and the karma now becomes directed towards you. It’s like assuming someone else’s debt.
Now you have to pay.
Supernatural powers should not be used lightly. The account in the New Testament of Jesus is an example of redirected karma. I believe that Christ had supernormal powers – the ability to heal the sick, make the blind see, and to drive out demons. You might think that with such powers, when he was nailed to the cross, he would have been able to make it disappear with a wave of his hand. But no, he had to die. You could say that Jesus died because of the sins of other people, because he had supernormal power, because he intervened in matters affecting other’s lives.
Why then do I even speak about supernormal powers? It is to emphasize the power of samadhi. The practice and experience of samadhi generate mental power. This power does not necessarily have to be supernormal, but it can be. The important point is that samadhi can help increase mental power.
The practice of dhyana and samadhi can clear a scattered mind, and bring it to a state of concentration. The mind can become so concentrated, in fact, that you can keep it on one single thought, whatever thought you choose. You might be able change to the disposition of a particular person or greatly affect a particular situation or event. It depends on how concentrated you are.
A very concentrated practitioner who has eliminated all wandering thoughts can, for the most part, know what he wants to know. He doesn’t have to see or hear anything in particular; he will just know. A person with this facility can foretell the arrival of a visitor, and know the exact day on which he first decided to come. This may seem strange and mystical, but it is nothing more than a power that some practitioners develop from samadhi.
It is important to understand that a practitioner with clairvoyance, such as I described above, will not necessarily know what is on everyone’s mind at every moment. Two factors must be involved for a practitioner to know another person’s thoughts: there must be a karmic affinity between the practitioner and the other person, and that person must be open to connecting with the practitioner. If you thought that there was someone who could read every thought in your mind, you wouldn’t want to have anything to do with him. You would feel naked. But there is really nothing to fear. First, the two factors I just mentioned must be present. And consider that there are eight million people in New York City. No ordinary practitioner can know what they are all thinking. Only a Buddha is capable of that.
These psychic powers can be fallible. Once when I happened to be near a certain mountain in Taiwan, I decided to visit a monk who lived in the area. He had a reputation for knowing when people would visit him long before they arrived. But when I got there, I found that he hadn’t known I was coming, and he didn’t know who I was. I believe that the reason for this is that I had no intention of visiting him until I found myself in his area.
What you can do depends on the power of your samadhi. If you have enough power, you can hold a piece of iron or steel in your hand and turn it into gold; then you could take it to a jewelry store and exchange it for cash. All of you in business should learn this technique. Of course, the consequences of trying something like this are that you will probably get yourself killed or end up killing someone else. And if you get life in prison, don’t think that you can just melt the bars with your samadhi and escape. By that time your karma will be so strong that samadhi will be of no use.
Supernormal power can be used occasionally, but it should not be used too often. If you do use it, it should benefit others, and hopefully it will bring some benefit to you. Using this power should not place you in jeopardy. If it does, it means that you are transferring someone else’s karma onto yourself. Most practitioners refrain from using their supernormal power.
Samadhi power should always be developed before you attempt to use the power of a mantra. When you are firmly established in samadhi, then you can try to help others, occasionally. Use of a mantra without samadhi is not true Buddhism. This is true of Tibetan Buddhism also.
Now I will talk about the psychic powers of the sages – the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. These are beings whose power is such that they can move in and out of samsara unhindered by karma.
For ordinary sentient beings, karma is the law of retribution, of effect determined by prior action. It is karma that causes us to be born as human beings. Once a doctor I know came to visit me, and asked why we should do good works in this life when it will not benefit us, but the next person in his or her next life. I asked, “If you did something in the morning and received the benefit from it in the evening, would you say the recipient was the same person or that it was two different people?” And again, “Are you the same person who studied so hard to become a doctor, or are you a different person? You can say that it is the same person who has gone through all the difficulties and changes. What you receive accords with how you have acted.”
The sage performs activities just like ordinary people. But unlike ordinary people, the sage no longer has a sense of self. As a result, there is no karmic consequence. Karma follows ordinary people like a shadow. No karma follows the sage. When a sage performs a good deed, it generates nothing – there are no consequences. It doesn’t seem like it would be that interesting to be a sage, does it? An ordinary person gets something back for his efforts; a sage gets nothing.
Once when I was in Taiwan a young man came up to me, and told me that he wanted to model his life after mine. “But unfortunately,” he said, “I have a strong karmic affinity with a young woman, and I have to work through it.” I asked him, “Don’t you think you’re making the bond stronger by putting all of your time into this relationship?” He said, “No, I figure that I am getting this particular obstruction out of the way.” This is the nature of ordinary people – there is no way they can keep themselves away from karmic action and reaction.
But for sages, avoiding karma is a natural process. Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism differ in their classification of enlightened beings. There are four levels in Theravada, ten or sometimes eleven in Mahayana. Someone who is at the first level, the “stream-enterer” according to the Theravada classification, can truly hold to the precept of not killing. We might take this precept, but it is more than likely that we will inadvertently step on an insect or somehow crush a bug during the course of the day. But the psychic power of a stream-enterer is such that when he walks, creatures move out of his way.
The last level in Theravada before Buddhahood is that of Arhat. You may have read that someone can attain this level without acquiring psychic powers. But Arhats can accomplish almost anything they wish to do. However, they may be unaware of their power. There is a story of a group of monks who arrived late one night at a vihara, an Indian temple. Their lamp had run out of oil and the night was pitch-dark. One of the monks said, “We can have light if there is an Arhat here.” Sure enough, a monk stepped forward and said that he was an Arhat. The first monk suggested that he point his finger and illuminate the area. The Arhat did just that and the area was bathed in light. He was simply unaware of some of the powers he had attained.
In the literature of many cultures there are references to heavenly beings who answer the prayers of mortals with silver gold, or precious jewels that have been transformed from ordinary objects or substances. Buddhist sutras acknowledge this power, but caution that a transformed substance can revert to its original form. It may take eight, eighty, even five hundred years, but it will eventually change back. However, if an Arhat transforms something into gold, it will remain for a great kalpa.
Many people are curious about past and future lives. Devas and gods can know the past and future, but their power is limited to perhaps ten lives in either direction. The most powerful deva may be able to see one hundred lives in either direction, but no further. Arhats have even greater power. They can remember lives for ten thousand kalpas, but not even they can go back to their origins. They can, however, tell exactly what will happen in the future.
Now I will compare the power of an Arhat with that of a Buddha. Of all Arhats, the strongest in psychic power was Maudgalyayana. Once, the Buddha said to him, “There is a world that lies to the west. If we go there together, you will not be able to keep up with me, so you start the journey before me.” It took Maudgalyayana three months to reach his destination. When he arrived, the Buddha was already there. Maudgalyana asked him when he had departed. The Buddha replied that he had just left a moment ago. For the Buddha there is no distance. This world or that world is close by, no matter how far it may seem to us. There is no time for the Buddha – he sees limitless lives in the past, limitless lives in the future, all seen in the same instant.
A god can have jurisdiction over a particular region, or country. A deva who had power over this planet would be powerful indeed. But this is a small planet among myriads.
An Arhat’s power extends over thousands of world systems. He has the ability to know what transpires anywhere in his domain.
But the Buddha is everywhere at every time. Bodhisattva Manjushri is very close to Buddhahood, so his power is comparable. He, too, is everywhere at all times. Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara can respond effortlessly to a thousand different beings at a thousand different places at the same time.
There was a Chan master who decided to urinate in front of a statue of the Buddha. Another monk rushed over and asked him what he was doing. The master said, “If you can show me where there is no Buddha, I’ll go there.”
The power of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas exists at all places and at all times, and far surpasses the power of other beings: Arhats, deities, and common people.