Mystical Phenomena in Buddhism?

July 28, 2019; revised June 9, 2020


Some phenomena may be labeled “mystical” or “incomprehensible” only because there are no rational explanations yet. However, logical reasons may become available as science makes progress.

1. There are two essential points to make regarding the series of posts on the “origin of Life,” and in general, regarding Buddha’s teachings.

  • Some characteristics of the other 29 realms in this world may not be compatible with our ordinary sensory experiences. Some phenomena are not “perceivable” or “easily understood” to humans. The Pāli word for “perceivable” is “gōcara” pronounced “gōchara”.
  • The second issue is how kammic energy can create a manōmaya kāya with the ability to “see” and “hear” without physical eyes or ears. Also, how did those “first living cells” on Earth come to existence? See, “Origin of Life – There is No Traceable Origin.
  • However, with the advances made in science, it is now possible to convince ourselves that such phenomena are scientifically plausible. There are no contradictions with science, at least theoretically (i.e., in principle).
  • We are fortunate to live at a time when scientific findings show that some of the “hard-to-believe” phenomena discussed in the Tipiṭaka are consistent with science. In this post, I will start with a couple of such issues (associated with “supernormal powers”).
Non-Perceivability of Some Phenomena

2. First, let me clarify what I mean by “perceivable” or “easily understood.” Our six senses can “detect” only a tiny fraction of the “our world.”

  • We directly experience only the human and animal realms, where living beings can be “seen with our eyes.” We have no idea about the “bodies” of those living beings in other realms. If we visit a Brahma or a dēva domain, for example, we may think that there is “no one there.” Their bodies are too wispy to be seen with our eyes.
  • Even when scientists probe the universe with their best equipment, they also see only a small fraction of “things” out there. At a base level, science today can account for only 4 percent of the mass of our universe; see, “The 4 Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality”, by Richard Panek (2011).
  • Many things have not been “discovered” by science yet. In particular, nothing significant about the MIND.
Buddha Dhamma Is Self-Consistent

3. Trying to gauge the validity of Buddha Dhamma with just what we can see with our eyes is foolish. That is like a blind man trying to figure out what an elephant is like, by touching just a leg of the elephant; see, “How do we Decide which View is Wrong View (Diṭṭhi)? “.

  • A frog living in a well does not know anything about the broader world of 31 realms. Similarly, an average human — including scientists — faces the problem of trying to figure out the “reality” by only using data available through our limited six senses. With the help of scientific instruments, we are making progress.
  • Thus a scientific theory can’t be ever “complete,” as proven by the mathematician Kurt Gödel; see, “Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. “However, science is helping to clarify some concepts.
  • Unless one attains abhiññā powers and can visit those realms, one would not be able to verify such characteristics of other domains. For example, we cannot see their ultra-fine bodies; see, “Clarification of “Mental Body” and “Physical Body” – Different Types of “Kāya.”
  • However, if one spends time learning Dhamma, one would be able to see the truth of them. We will discuss a few examples below. Also, see, “Buddha Dhamma: Non-Perceivability and Self-Consistency.”
Touching the Sun – Is That Possible?

4. Some phenomena described in the Tipiṭaka seem to be “mystical” or “beyond comprehension.” But they are entirely feasible based on the advances in science. I will discuss a couple of examples in the Tipiṭaka to illustrate this point. In the “Sāmañ­ña­phala­ Sutta (DN 2)” “.. imepi candimasūriye evaṃmahiddhike evaṃma­hānu­bhāve pāṇinā parāmasati parimajjāti..” or, “.. he touches and strokes the Sun and the moon, so mighty and powerful..”.

  • This verse describes the powers of a yōgi with supernormal capabilities (Iddhividha ñāṇa). How can one “touch and stroke the Sun?” Isn’t the Sun supposed to be extremely hot?
  • Here, the yōgi is in the manōmaya kāya, not with his physical body. Of course, a physical body will burn well before it gets close to the Sun. The key is to note that the manōmaya kāya has just a few suddhāshtaka. For example, a human manōmaya kāya has a hadaya vatthu and five pasāda rūpa and each is a suddhāshtaka; see, “Clarification of “Mental Body” and “Physical Body” – Different Types of “Kāya.”
  • A suddhāshtaka is the smallest unit of matter in Buddha Dhamma and is billion times smaller than an atom in modern science. Therefore, the manōmaya kāya of a yōgi is unimaginably tiny; it is a “packet of energy.”

5. An entity at the level of suddhāshtaka will not be affected by the Sun’s high temperatures or even by a supernova explosion. We can understand that from modern science as follows: A regular fire can burn dense things like wood or paper. At higher temperatures, melting ovens can melt steel bars. But neither of those can burn molecular gases like hydrogen or nitrogen. Those gases burn at even higher temperatures.

  • However, even at the temperatures generated by a supernova explosion, matter at the suddhāshtaka level is not affected. A supernova is the blowing up of a star. 
  • The Earth and the Sun are destroyed at the end of a mahā kappa. However, the Brahma realms lying at or above the Abhassara Brahma realm survive. Those Brahmā have very subtle bodies (with only a trace of matter) that are not affected even by a supernova; see, “Buddhism and Evolution – Aggañña Sutta (DN 27)“.
  • Well before that destruction, all living beings in our world move up to the Abhassara Brahma realm.
  • Now we can see how a yōgi with a manōmaya kāya of a Brahma CAN indeed touch the Sun. That is not a miracle. It is just that a manōmaya kāya is so fine (subtle) that it is not affected by even a supernova, which has much more power than the Sun.
How Can One Go Through Walls?

6. The same sutta (and many other suttā) also describe the ability of yōgis with iddhi powers to go through walls and dive into the Earth and come out from a different location, among others.

The following verse appears in many suttā in the Iddhipāda Saṃyutta of the Saṃyutta Nikāya (SN 51.11 through SN 51.32): “Ye hi keci, bhikkhave, etarahi samaṇā vā brāhmaṇā vā anekavihitaṃ iddhividhaṃ paccanubhonti—ekopi hutvā bahudhā honti, bahudhāpi hutvā eko honti; āvibhāvaṃ, tirobhāvaṃ; tirokuṭṭaṃ tiropākāraṃ tiropabbataṃ asajjamānā gacchanti, seyyathāpi ākāse; pathaviyāpi ummuj­jani­mujjaṃ karonti, seyyathāpi udake; udakepi abhijjamāne gacchanti, seyyathāpi pathaviyaṃ; ākāsepi pallaṅkena kāmanti, seyyathāpi pakkhī sakuṇo; imepi candimasūriye evaṃmahiddhike evaṃma­hānu­bhāve pāṇinā parimasanti parimajjanti; yāva brahmalokāpi kāyena vasaṃ vattenti, ..”

Translated:Bhikkhus, a bhikkhu or a brāhmana who has developed supernormal powers (iddhi) wields various psychic powers: He can become many copies of himself. He appears and vanishes. He travels unimpeded through walls, ramparts, and mountains, and dives in and out of the Earth as if it were water. He walks on water without sinking as if it were the Earth. Sitting cross-legged, he travels through space like a winged bird. With his hand, he touches and strokes the Sun and the Moon, so mighty and powerful. He displays mastery as far as the brahmā-realms..”.

  • It is also evident in this verse that it could be anyone who can cultivate these powers, not just Buddhists.
  • Let us first clarify a few things with science, and then we will discuss how it is possible to “go through walls and dive into the Earth.”
  • We need to first discuss some aspects of atoms and molecules uncovered by modern science.
An Atom is  Virtually Empty! 

7. Here is a simplified version of some relevant properties of an atom. An atom has a tiny nucleus with 99.9% of the mass (or “weight” in ordinary language.) It is surrounded by an “electron cloud” that takes up almost all the “space occupied by the atom”. In other words, it is analogous to a miniaturized version of our Solar system, where the massive Sun is at the center, and several planets revolve around the Sun.

  • The main difference is that those electrons are not in circular orbits. They have complicated “orbitals,” and the easiest is to visualize an “electron cloud” around the nucleus.
  • The nucleus is tiny but has all the mass of the atom essentially. Electrons spread out in a large volume around the nucleus (core).
  • We can use the following analogy to get a perspective on the size of an atom compared to the nucleus. If a mustard seed with a millimeter diameter represents the nucleus, the “electron cloud” would occupy a volume with 100 meters in diameter. We could say a nucleus would be like a grain of sand in the chamber of a large cathedral or a football stadium.

8. Therefore, an atom (or a molecule) is mostly empty. That means our bodies that we think are very solid are also basically empty. Even steel or diamond would be similarly “empty.”

  • P.S. If it is possible to take out all that empty space in our bodies (which of course, is not possible), all the matter in the physical bodies of 9 billion humans in the world today would fit inside a sugar cube!
  • If our atoms are mostly space, why can’t we pass through walls like those ghosts in movies?
  • Electrical repulsion among the electron clouds of neighboring atoms forces them to stay away without getting close.
  • Therefore, we cannot go through walls or any other “solid object” with our physical bodies.
Go Through Walls and Dive Into the Earth?

9. Even though our physical bodies cannot go through other “solid objects,” our manōmaya kāya (gandhabba) made of very fine suddhāshtaka can!

  • That level of “matter” is much more refined and subtle than even electrons. Furthermore, “particles” at the suddhāshtaka level are not electrically charged. So, they do not have any problem going through the electron cloud.
  • Therefore, modern science (physics) helps us understand why this is not a miracle at all.

10. Those objects that appear to be “highly condensed” — such as walls or even steel — are mostly hollow at the atomic level. An atom has a tiny nucleus surrounded by an “electron cloud.” The size of an atom is defined by the electron cloud, which spreads out over a relatively large volume. Two adjacent atoms cannot come too close to each other because of the mutual repulsion between their electron clouds.

  • Therefore, an atom is “virtually empty.” The dense nucleus takes only a little volume, and the electron cloud is far away. Therefore, a manōmaya kāya made of only a few suddhāshtaka can freely move through “solid matter” made of atoms and molecules.
  • A yōgi with such abhiññā powers could use the manōmaya kāya to travel through “solid objects.”
  • One with even more developed abilities may be able to reduce one’s physical body to the suddhāshtaka level, go through the “solid object” and then “reassemble” at the other end. That sounds like science fiction (“teleportation”), but that is precisely how it may be done in the future with further progress in science. Of course, one with such abhiññā powers would be able to do that right now.
  • P.S. An account from the Tipiṭaka regarding “teleportation”: Ven. Ananda attained the Arahanthood only the day before the first Buddhist Council held 3 months after the Parinibbāna of the Buddha. Only Arahants participated. Everyone was waiting for the arrival of Ven. Ananda. In order to remove any doubts of those who were present that he had indeed attained the Arahanthood — complete with all iddhi powers — Ven. Ananda is said to have entered the room through the keyhole in the door. So, this is an example of teleportation.
Summary and Other Implications

11. Other “mysterious phenomena” in verse in #6 above can also be explained to be consistent with science. As science makes progress, these clarifications will have more support.

  • I will be discussing some of those other phenomena in the future after covering the necessary background material.

12. On a side note, this clarification also helps us understand that our concept of “touching someone” is not as intimate as we think. When we “touch” something, it is only the outer electrons of the atoms (molecules) on our body “touching” the same on the other object.

  • I am very serious about this. Suppose you are blind-folded and someone touches you on the arm. If you think it is your girl (boy) friend, that will make you generate sensual thoughts. However, you will feel only affectionate feelings of a different kind If you are under the impression that it is your parent. If you think it is a total stranger (and not good looking!), you may barely notice him/her.
Buddha Discouraged “Magic Shows” by Those With Iddhi Powers

13. I must also emphasize that the Buddha not only discouraged but banned in most cases, display of such supernormal powers by bhikkhus. The main reason for that was explained to Kevatta by the Buddha in the Kevaṭṭa Sutta (DN 11). The English translation there: “With Kevaddha (DN 11)“.

  • So, there were people at the time of the Buddha who could do such “miracles” using special techniques like “Gandhāra magic trick” (gandhārī nāma vijjā). Some others cultivated supernormal powers via anariya jhāna. Then such people can put down Buddha Dhamma, saying that “I can also do those things without Buddha’s teachings.”
  • Even today, some magicians perform such “miracles.” Here is a video showing “Criss Angel walking on water”:

Of course, it is an illusion. But it looks real! Criss Angel discusses these illusions or magic tricks in his book, “Mindfreak” (2007).

  • However, only Buddha Dhamma can make it possible to stop future suffering, and that is not possible with magic tricks!
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