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?  


mormolyca said...

Dear Bhante,

there's an interesting record in chinese Pratyutpanna Sutra Ch.2 (般舟三昧經/行品第二):

When the forms are clear, everything is clear. If one wishes to see the Buddha then one sees him. If one sees him then one asks questions. If one asks then one is answered, one hears the sutras and rejoices greatly. One reflects thus: 'Where did the Buddha come from? Where did I go to?' and one thinks to oneself: 'The Buddha came from nowhere, and I also went nowhere.' One thinks to oneself: The Three Realms—the Realm of Desire, the Realm of Form, and the Realm of the Formless—these Three Realms are simply made by thought.(tr. by Paul Harrison)

as for scientific study, there's an BBC article on OBE:

Scientists can even mimic OBE in the lab:



saltwetfish said...

I have read about a meditation teacher called Dipa Ma. Apparently and according to eye witnesses she walked through walls sometimes

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Mormolyca, thanks for your interesting comment.

Dear Saltwetfish, I have always thought that psychologists should do a study of those disciples who believe that their teachers have the most amazing miraculous abilities, how such beliefs come about, and why they persist despite being utterly incredible.

Walter said...

I think it is more likely a case of how sound travels. I had similar experiences though I was not in meditation. Late one night, and in fact for several nights thereafter, I and my wife heard a strange but very clear knocking sound coming out from the underside of the dressing-table. My wife thought there was a ghost. But when I went to the window, I could hear the same sound coming from a location across our flat (couldn't quite remember exactly where as it was many years ago). The strange thing was that in the stillness of the night, the sound from under the dressing-table sounded clearer than the sound from the actual source. I think an expert in sound waves would probably say that the source of the sound by coincidence was located at a precise spot where the sound waves could travel and be reflected and focussed onto the dressing-table, which acted as a sound box.

paulmalone said...

This reminds me of a time many years ago when I attended a meditation course (not Buddhist) where one new participant explained he was there to learn to walk through walls. The instructor (a true pragmatist) pointed out that such a feat wasn't at all necessary since doors had indeed been invented just for that purpose. So disappointed was the budding wall-walker that he about-turned and left (through the front door).

j d said...

As I recall Sangarakshita in his book "The thousand petalled lotus" recounts a very unusual experience with the manifestation of pretas or'hungy ghosts whilst he was meditating.
Later in the shrine room where he was placing flowers he witnessed the figure of Sri Ramakrishna hovering in mid air and also had an intense feeling of his actual presence, which frightened him.
One has to question was this actually happening or did it come from the depth of his sub conscious mind?

brahmavihara said...

As it seems to me, mano maya kaya is quite closely related to our previous discussions on rebirth. For example, the five aggregates (although not anything essential or unchanging) are a conditioned continuum of of rupa(form) conciousness, perception, feeling and volition. All of these, provide the conditions(Karma) for them persist, move together and can manifest in many different ways in the three rounds of existence, material, fine material and immaterial realms. What I am about to relate, it should be said, confers no special abilities to me or for that matter anyone else that has similar experiences IMHO. As far back into my childhood as I can remember I used to have an occasional experience after I had gone to sleep, maybe once or twice a year at a guess. It was as if I had woken up again but somehow the axis of my body had changed from that of my still sleeping body. Then there was a feeling that my body (not the one on the bed) was expanding to a size as great, or greater than the whole universe, but paradoxically also infinitely small at the same time. So space was being experienced with no boundary Macro or micro. This merged into just the knowing of it, if that makes sense.
As I say it happened occasionally and to me it seemed unremarkable. I never told anyone because although I remembered it I actually thought that this happened to everyone, I thought it might be a perfectly normal side effect of every bodys sleep experience. At some stage in my late twenties I happened to ask my parents about “ you know that thing that happens after falling asleep, you kinda wake up and then your body starts to expand etc” thinking that they had had it too and that they would be able to explain that it was some well known side effect of eating spicy food or something similar. How wrong I was, they listened with a sense of incredulity and were conserned that I could be going insane. In short they had never even heard of such a thing. So I asked one or two friends the same thing, with the same result. Complete bafflement, no one new or had experienced the phenomenon. So I gave up my investigation of it, thinking that it may well be known to psychology or physiology etc. In my early thirties I became gradually interested in Buddhism. I noticed that listening to a talk about Dharma on several occasions from this particular Buddhist Monk produced in me, at least, a great feeling of mental spaciousness and stillness not ordinarily experienced. On or soon after the third talk of this series I quietly realized that the spacious stillness that arose during these talks was in fact a near relative or of the same lineage of my previous experiences and that I could understand that it was this purity of mind that Buddhism emphasised. I also started to understand that others had these experiences too from different faiths and religions. Further to that it also occurred to me that these types of experiences were probably ( but not surprisingly) wrongly attributed to the so called eternal soul that seems to crop up in many religions except Buddhism. So what does this have to do with Buddhism? I believe that the five aggregates model of conditioned existence are able to manifest in different ways as a result of previous causes. A pleasant state of mind, for example, is largely conditioned by previous causes that help to bring about, maintain and add to the duration of them. The best examples of these are generous, helpful, pure minded and happy activities.. The duration of this pleasantness is variable but is a continuum mentally and emotionally from moment to moment, immediately, later or much later (after the break up of the body) because the five aggregates are still functioning. Rupa is not the body but it is a kind the blue print for the way that the 5 aggregates manifest themselves materially eg Human being, duck cat or whatever. 2b b145continued

brahmavihara said...

They can manifest in the fine material areas eg Jhana realms and fine material realms so called Arupa Jhana abidings. All of these are conditioned and are the vipaka, results of yet previous conditions and are therefore unstable, dukkha and liable to rebirth. A Buddhist however, trains his mind to overcome from these existences knowing that they provide no refuge from the great and dangerous ocean of death and rebirth as the Buddha has espoused and that we gradually become aware of through following the Noble Eightfold path. I must say that my experiences of OOB differ in one respect from what the Suttas report and that is I did not seem to have mastery or control of them. Rather they seemed to be results, in my opinion from some previous time and location perhaps. However they were very helpful in my understanding of Buddhism But wait, there’s more! Bhante, I think I’ve bored your followers enough for the moment and I hope I made sense and that it was helpful.

Ariyakumara said...

Dear Bhante,

There is an article by Bhikkhu Sujato on rebirth and in-between in early Buddhism, which discussed about NDE (Near death experience) or OOBE (Out of body experience) regarding with five aggregates of clinging (pancakkhanda). Here is the link:

Soe am i said...

Dear Brahmavihara,

That was an interesting account. Thank you for sharing. I was just thinking how OOBEs usually are usually reported as involuntary and there is a lack of mastery over it, reminds me of how it is similar to when we are in a dream. I haven't had any OOBEs but I have had a couple of dreams where I could actively control the course of the dream. The most notable difference that separated such dreams from others is that It was a re-dream of an earlier dream, and while still dreaming I could recognize that it was a dream.

In my current study as a psychology student, there is a study of spatial intelligence.

Psychologists believe that it deals with our spatial judgement in everyday tasks like navigation. This kind of spatial ability may contribute to mastery of other mentally willed abilities.

mike alexander said...

G'day mate.

Great article. I'd actually like to pick your brain, if that's ok. My question is : how common amongst Buddhist monks is the knowledge of psychic experience? I would've thought it would be something that was a bit more clearly understood and experienced. It seems it could do wonders for people - in this age of pathological Atheism and hostility to all religion - if science was able to understand what was going on here.

Anyway, hope you can answer this, but if not, best wishes, and thanks in advance.

Andrzej Wysocki said...


i am a Buddhist, or trying to be.
i am starting to learn Lucid Dreaming, read it's a key to OOBE.

had insight that this can be beneficial, spiritual way.
had insight that Karma Kagyu school of Buddhism can use more of those as me.

thanks for the article.