Sunday, March 24, 2013

Buddhism and Out-of-body Experience

The Buddha sometimes spoke of and believed in the existence of psychic abilities (iddhi).   Several of these abilities seem impossible; being able to walk through walls, walking on water, levitating, etc (D.I.78). Others seem problematic while not being totally impossible, and are certainly intriguing; being able to hear things over a great distance and being able to read other people’s minds being two of these. I am much more open to the possibility to these two, particularly the last, because I once had an experience which seemed to be something like it.
Late one night I was meditating in my darkened room. I had been in a deep, stable concentration for some time when suddenly I heard someone’s voice in the room very near me.  The voice was clear and loud. I was immediately jolted out of my meditation and opened my eyes to see who it was. I looked around the room (my eyes were accustomed to the dark and there was some light coming through the window) but could see no one. Intrigued and a little worried that there was an intruder in the premises, I got up and looked around. Again nothing. I went to the window and out in the street saw several young men fixing a motorbike under a street lamp. They were some distance away but I could just hear    their voices. Initially it was the voice  I had heard in my room itself  which had startled me, not what it said. Now I recalled that the voice had been talking about things related to motorbikes. I realized  that for  a few moments or so I had spontaneously heard part of a conversation that had been going on out in the street as if it had taken place just a few feet from me.  For the next few weeks every one of  my meditation  was a failure.  I longed  to get into a deep stable concentration so I  could have a similar ‘psychic’ experience again. Of course this hope was the very thing that disrupted my meditation and blocked it from happening. And nothing like it has ever happened again. However, since this experience I have met several deeply committed meditators who have told me that they have had similar experiences. Of course one meets plenty of meditators who are more than happy to tell you all about their amazing psychic experiences, often after just a few weeks meditation. I am referring to long-term mediators who have spent  extended periods in silence and solitude. 
Another psychic ability  mentioned by the Buddha is what he called producing the mind-made body (mano maya kaya). He described it like this, “He (i.e. the meditating monk) draws out of his body another body, having form, made of mind, complete in all its limbs and faculties”  (D.I,77). This sounds very like the often reported phenomena now called out-of-body experience, OBE. People who have been brain dead and then revived sometimes report having OBE, others say it occasionally happens to them during sleep or  during a period of   intense physical exhustition.  Interestingly, the Buddha specifically says that creating a  mano maya kaya  is a willed experience, one has to  “apply and direct the mind”  (cittam abhiniharati abhininnameti) to producing it.  However, perhaps this does not cancel out the possibility of it  happening spontaneously.  OBE is often enough reported that it has attracted the attention of cognitive scientists and others and there  is a surprisingly large amount of literature  on the subject. The Wikipedia article Out-of-body Experience offers a good overview of this literature.  Charles T. Tart’s article ‘Six Studies of Out-of-body Experience’ in the Journal of Near-Death Studies, No.2, 1998 is a good read – rigorously scientific while being open to the possibility of a spiritual/psychic (if that’s the right term) explanation. But to return to the Dhamma; how does the mano maya kaya fit into the Buddhist model of  consciousness?  And is there anything in modern or neurological research that could explain it. Any opinions?  

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Buddha On Rebirth

The first Buddhists regarded life (jiva) as a process of consciousness  moving through a succession of bodies, death being only a momentary event to this process. This phenomena is sometimes called `moving from womb to womb' (Sn.278) or more precisely, rebirth (punabbhava, D.II,15). Later Buddhist thinkers explained rebirth in complex and minute detail  - death-proximate kamma   (marana samma kamma), last though moment  (cuti citta), relinking (patisandhi), the underlying stream of existence (bhavanga sota), etc. Interestingly, none of this is mentioned in the Sutta Pitaka, much of it is not even to be found in the Abhidhamma Pitaka. It is the product of speculation dating from the early centuries  CE onward. This is not to say that such  concepts are valueless, but it is important to distinguish between early, late and very late Dhamma concepts.
The Buddha mentions rebirth often enough but what does he say  about the actual process of rebirth? The answer is `Not very much'. The Buddha considered death to have taken place when bodily, verbal and mental activities stop,  when vitality (ayu) and heat (usma) cease,  and when consciousness disengages from the body so that it  becomes suspended (acetana, M.I,296).  The consciousness  `moves upwards' (uddhagami) and then `descends' (avakkanti) into the womb, i.e. the mothers newly fertilized egg (D.III,103; S.V,370), finding `a resting place' (patiññthà) there (D.II,63).  I assume that these `up' `down' description are only metaphorical.   
Some Buddhist schools teach that after death, consciousness hovers in an in-between state (antarabhava) for a certain period before being reborn. Others, such as the Theravadins,  assert that rebirth takes place  within moments of consciousness disengaging from the body. The Buddha suggests that there is an interval between death and rebirth. He spoke of the situation `when one has laid down the body (i.e. died) but has not yet been reborn' (S.IV,400). On several other occasions he said that for one who has attained Nirvana there is `no here, no there, no in-between'(S.IV,73),  presumably referring to this life, the next life, and the in-between state.  He even said that in certain circumstances someone might attain Nirvana while in this in-between state. He called the individual who achieved this `a Nirvanaized in-between type' (antaraparinibbayi, S.V,69).    
When the consciousness is in transition between one life and the next it is referred to as gandhabba,  and the Buddha said that this gandhabba has to be present for conception to take place (M.I,265). For most people the whole process between death and actually being born again is unconscious (asampajana), although a few spiritually evolved individuals can remain fully aware during the transition (D.III,103). The question of  exactly which point the consciousness finds `a resting place' in the fertilized egg or fetus so that it can be considered a new being,  is nowhere addressed in the Tipitaka. Whether or not it is mentioned in any later Buddhist literature  I do not know. Can anyone help? This question is important because it has a bearing on the abortion debate. Certainly, the earliest Buddhists considered abortion to be wrong (D.I,11; Ja.V,269).
Today theosophical and New Age publications are full of accounts by people who claim to be able to remember their past lives. I think most such claims are due to delusion,  vivid imaginations or suggestion. A friend of mine tells me that he knows of at least 5 people who can remember being Cleopatra!  Studies of patients who have undergone so-called  past life therapy by researchers such as Nicholas Spanos, etc. have shown that  their `memories' are not memories at all.  One of the best studies casting doubt on  past life memories that I know of is Ian Wilson's Mind Out of Time? Reincarnation Claims Investigated (1981). Wilson's findings are enough to make any objective person  highly skeptical of this phenomena. This book is a really good read if you can get  a copy.  Even the supposed phenomena of repressed memories from the present life is not  accepted in mainstream psychology and is being subjected to increasing criticism. None of this disproves rebirth but it should caution us not to give credence to every claim of past life remembrance.  
In traditional Buddhist countries but particularly in  Sri Lanka,  young children occasionally come to public attention after claiming that they can remember their former life. Some of these claims have been carefully studied by Prof. Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia. His researches have been published by the university as Cases of the Reincarnation Type, Vol.I,1975; Vol.II,1978; Vol.III, 1980 and Vol.IV,1983. While not being easy to read, Stevenson's research has a high degree of  scientific credibility and objectivity. According to the Buddha, just before the attainment of enlightenment some individuals have an experience called the knowledge of former lives (pubbe nivasanussati, D.I,81). During this experience, vivid and detailed memories of one's former lives flash through the mind.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Karimun Inscription

Karimun Island is some 30 kilometres west of Singapore. Because of its strategic  location right in the middle of the straits between the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra ships passing between India and Java, Sumatra or even beyond to China, in ancient times passed by and often stopped at Karimun Island.  On the northern tip of the island is the earliest evidence of both Buddhism and of Indians in the general Singapore region.  On the 9th March myself and a few friends set off to have a look at this evidence.
The trip to Karimun takes an hour and a half and requires obtaining a one day Indonesian visa. After landing and passing through customs we piled into two taxis and drove the 25 kilometres to Pasi Panjang. The surprisingly high jungle-covered mountain at the end of the island is half eaten away by an immense quarry. The granite from this quarry is  shipped all the way to Singapore for constructing breakwaters, foundations and retaining walls. Right at the foot of the mountain is a small shrine surrounded by a metal railing. On the sloping rock sheltered by this shrine is six Sanskrit words written in Devanagri script from about the 8th or 9th centuries CE. The inscription reads Mahayanika Golapanditasri Gautama Sripada. The meaning is clear enough and can be translated as “The sacred footprint of Gautama (was revered by) the   Mahayanist scholar of Bengal.”
Mahayanika refers to someone of the Mahayana school of Buddhism. This school was the dominant one in the Malay world  until the  12th /13th  centuries when it started to give way to Islam. Gola is probably an Indonesianized version of gauda, the ancient name for Bengal, and pandita means a scholar, in this case almost certainly a Buddhist monk. Sri means holy or lustrous, and pada is a footprint. We know from ancient sources that Buddhists monks, mainly from the great universities of Nalanda in Bihar, and Somapura and Jagaddhala in Bengal, travelled and taught widely in Sumatra and Java. No doubt it was one such monk who had the Karimun inscription carved as a record of his visit. No estampage or tracing of the inscription has ever been published and it has been worn since it was first examined by archaeologists in the late 19th century so I made a rough eye-copy. One of our party had the bright idea of tipping water over the inscription and immediately the letters became much clearer.
The footprint referred to in the inscription is a natural indentation in the rock to the left of the shrine. A little further on is a rock pool, possibly filled by water flowing down the incline when it rains. It seems probable that ships originally  stopped  here to replenish their water. Eventually someone saw the footprint-shaped indentation, identified it with the symbolic Buddha footprints seen elsewhere, and that in time seamen, merchants and pilgrims stopped here to pray   for a safe journey or to give thanks for one successfully completed. Then at some time in the 8th/9th a Bengali  monk stopped here and left a record of his visit in big bold Sanskrit letters. Our interesting day excursion ended just after sunset with our arrival back in Singapore.