Regarding “Superhuman States”

| September 27, 2013 | 12 Comments

eladmizrahi_Super_DudeSometimes, although not nearly as often as in later traditions, it seems as though the Buddha of the Nikāyas is a kind of superman. What do I mean? In a few passages it’s as though he did not consider himself entirely human. Some of this has to do with notions that the Buddha and his dhamma were not “scientific” or amenable to naturalization. After all, as I discussed in my last post, the Buddha does claim in the Mahāsīhanāda Sutta that,

… [S]hould anyone say of me: ‘The recluse Gotama does not have any superhuman states, any distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones. The recluse Gotama teaches a Dhamma (merely) hammered out by reasoning, following his own line of inquiry as it occurs to him’ — unless he abandons that assertion and that state of mind and relinquishes that view, then as (surely as if he had been) carried off and put there he will wind up in hell.

That passage is one of the Gold Standards of a supernaturalist Buddha.

But let’s look at it a bit more closely. The Buddha wants to make two related claims: (1) that he has superhuman states, and (2) that he has a distinction in knowledge and vision that is worthy of the noble ones.

The second claim should not particularly concern a naturalist. What the Buddha is saying is that he knows things that are very important: he has knowledge and vision, but not just any sort of knowledge and vision. He has knowledge and vision that is particularly worthy. This is the kind of claim we might make about any wise person, without necessarily intending anything particularly magical or supernatural about them. We might, for example, say it of Aristotle, or Martin Luther King.

“Vision”, it is true, has Buddhist connotations that involve supposed supernatural abilities such as the “divine eye” that, it is said, allowed the Buddha to see past lives and other planes of existence. However more directly relevant to the dhamma, “vision” is an ability to directly witness the reality of impermanence, dukkha, and non-self. That is, the Buddha does not just say that the world is impermanent on the basis of indirect knowledge, but on the basis of vision, of seeing so first hand. His knowledge is therefore direct knowledge.

Which brings us to the first claim, that the Buddha has “superhuman states”. The Pāli words are “uttari manussa dhammā”, where “uttari” means “beyond”, and “manussa” means “human”. So the claim is that the Buddha has some “dhammas” which are beyond human, or more simply, superhuman. “Dhammas” in this context probably means “mental states” as in the Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, which looks at certain classes of mental phenomena.

So it would appear that the Buddha is claiming that he has mental states that are not shared by other humans: that he is special and perhaps unique. This is how I think Donald Lopez would take the claim. As he says, “The Buddha described in the sutras is more a figure of science fiction than science.” The Buddha is more akin to a cartoon Superman than to an ordinary human being.

There is material in the suttas that supports Lopez’s contention. The Buddha does, after all, make plenty of claims about a number of supernatural abilities.

Superhuman or Supernatural?

But what of these “uttari manussa dhammā”? In this regard it may be interesting to look at the Cūḷagosinga Sutta, Majjhima Nikāya 31. There the Buddha questions Anuruddha, Nandiya, and Kimbila, three disciples keeping meditative seclusion in the Gosinga forest. He asks them:

… [W]hile you abide thus diligent, ardent, and resolute, have you attained any superhuman state [uttari manussa dhammā], a distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones, a comfortable abiding? (10)

The Pāli here is the same as we saw in the Buddha’s assertion in the Mahāsīhanāda Sutta, the only addition being that the Buddha asks if these states are also “a comfortable abiding.”

In response Anuruddha says that they have attained such a state: they have achieved the first jhāna.

Then the Buddha asks if they have achieved any other superhuman state, distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones, comfortable abiding, that “surmounts” the last.

Anuruddha says that they have: they have achieved the second jhāna. The questioning repeats as Anuruddha says they have achieved all four (“rupa”) jhānas, the four so-called “formless” or “arupa” jhānas, the cessation of perception and feeling, and nibbāna itself.

Then the Buddha’s questioning ends.

There are three points to make about this passage. First, the Buddha takes all of these jhānic states to be examples of “superhuman states, distinctions in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones.” He does not respond to Anuruddha by saying that those sorts of attainments did not qualify. Instead his response to each of them is, “Good, good”. (“Sādhu sādhu”).

Second, none of these states need be understood as involving anything supernatural in a contemporary, scientific sense, much as they may have connoted planes of existence in early Buddhist thought. First and foremost they are deep states of meditative absorption. They are unusual states, “beyond” (uttari) or apart from normal states of consciousness; one might call them “altered”. They are “superhuman” in the sense of being out of the ordinary, and superior in certain respects of focus, calm, and so on. Of course in a Buddhist context these are states that can be used to sharpen the mind towards the attainment of wisdom, so to that end they are also “worthy of the noble ones”.

Third, when asked by the Buddha about which such states they have attained, Anuruddha does not list any of what we, by modern standards, would consider literally “superhuman states”; he makes no mention of the traditional “iddhis” such as the ability to see past lives, to witness kammic causation, to fly through the air, or to walk on water.

This does not mean that iddhis wouldn’t have qualified as “uttari manussa dhammā”. Nor does it mean that the Buddha — or Anuruddha — were scientific naturalists. What it does mean is that contemporary notions of supernaturalism cut across various similar concepts in the Nikāyas. It is not enough to say that because the Buddha claimed to have “superhuman states”, it means that he did not believe himself to be fully human, nor that therefore he viewed himself in a supernatural light. After all, on the basis of this sutta, Anuruddha, Nandiya, Kimbala, and indeed all contemporary accomplished practitioners of jhāna would also have been considered by the Buddha to have “superhuman states, distinctions in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones”. Surely to that extent they are somewhat different from ordinary humans, but that can be said of many of us to one degree or another.

Exceptionalism

In conclusion, the back and forth we see between the Buddha and his disciples in the Cūḷagosinga Sutta demonstrates that the Buddha’s notion of being “superhuman” does not match very closely at all with contemporary notions of the supernatural. It means something more like “out of the ordinary” or “exceptional”.

And now perhaps we can see a bit more clearly as to why the Buddha might have made the hyperbolic statement quoted above from the Mahāsīhanāda Sutta. He wasn’t claiming to be a Superman. Instead he was claiming — and it was central to his position as “awakened” that this be so — that he was exceptional in being able to reach states of absorption deep and focused enough to allow him to see directly the truth of anicca, dukkha, anatta. That’s what concerned him most: to establish that his “knowledge and vision” came from a kind of mental focus which was out of the ordinary. It did not simply come to him through an ordinary line of reasoned supposition.

Nowadays, of course, we are a little more skeptical about claims of “knowledge and vision” since we have seen them made erroneously all too often. (Just as lines of reasoned supposition may be). We need something more objectively verifiable, and there are suttas where the Buddha agrees that a certain degree of skepticism is warranted until we see the entire picture for ourselves. While this doesn’t eliminate the fact that the Buddha had a robust supernaturalist philosophy, it also establishes that much of what is central to the dhamma — including claims of “superhuman states, distinctions of knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones” — can be upheld without recourse to it.

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Doug Smith

About the Author ()

Doug has a PhD in Philosophy, with a minor in Buddhist philosophy and Sanskrit. In 2013 he completed the year-long Integrated Study and Practice Program with the BCBS and NYIMC. As a long time scientific skeptic, he pursues a naturalized approach to practice. He is also interested in scholarship about the Tripiṭaka, and the theoretical and historical origins of the dhamma.

Comments (12)

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  1. David S says:

    So what about the “hell” comment? What about the “divine eye” comment? Etc….

    Seems obvious, he’s saying he has a view of supernaturalism which is inherent in his view. There is no escaping from these views in his logic. Yes, at this time we can parse the statements and their meaning to us as we wish, but supernaturalism is still within Buddhism. It is a religion.

    What of people today who think they have had these experiences? It would be interesting for them to discuss what exactly they experienced wouldn’t it? Ah, but they will not because there is a moratorium on describing their first hand experiences and an unwillingness to put words to these events. Thus obscuring others from holding contrary views of such claims. Conveniently closed to discussion. You’re a believer or you’re not. You benefit from believing in magic, or you go to hell. Sound familiar?

    • jak42 says:

      Hi David,

      I’ve had these kinds of experiences and I’m happy to talk about them. A couple years ago, I was attending a jhana retreat and I saw devas and daemons and my past lives. I never achieved jhana but I did achieve a high degree of concentration, which was what triggered these experiences. High concentration is a kind of altered state of consciousness, like psychedelics, and can result in similar kinds of visual and auditory hallucinations. Mostly, in my opinion, these are triggered by belief, i.e., if you believe something you will see/hear it, and then construct a story around it. The mind seems to be centered on constructing stories, that is how we learn and pass on information to others, and dreams are primarily stories.

      As I’ve mentioned in this forum before, I think the Buddha and many premodern people have had these kinds of experiences because they believed in devas/angels and past lives. In fact, many modern people have them too. Luhrmann at Stanford has done research in fundamentalist Christians and one important part of the practice is hearing the voice of God. Fundamentalists must work hard to develop this, concentrating during prayer, kind of like concentration meditation.

      Luhrmann recently had an op ed in the NYT about people who practice tulpa:

      http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/15/opinion/luhrmann-conjuring-up-our-own-gods.html?_r=1&adxnnl=1&ref=contributors&adxnnlx=1381943356-poI2kDtWHibMhJEAb6DXOQ&

      This is a Tibetan practice of concentrating on the visualization of a imaginary being until it becomes real. Try googling for tulpa, there is a whole subculture on the Internet of people who practice it, and give each other tips, discuss the practice, etc.

      Of course, none of these experiences correspond to any physically tangible objects or beings. They are all in the experiencer’s imagination. But that doesn’t make them any less real, I can testify to that.

      • David S says:

        Thanks jak42.

        So what beliefs do you think brought you to experience the devas, daemons and past lives? A religious background?

        I was raised an atheist, yet on a retreat I had an experience (an absorption) which left me with a religious sort of reverence about it with its deeply moving emotional tones. Apparently this was one of its affects, because on the next retreat I experienced another absorption which had no emotional tones to it.

        Your experience would be interesting to hear described, including the before and after transitions.

        I found in the absorptions a strangely fascinating feeling of slipping into a reversal from feeling in “charge” to one of being lead along and into a perceptual state where “I” wasn’t operating, just the perception of breathing in an abstraction of movement and the sound itself being very loud, with no visuals. Much later, in reading the book ‘Zen and the Brain’ the author describes the potential for the brain to switch off and re-channel parts of consciousness. This would explain how in concentration one is disciplining one’s use of the brain, without being able to “will” such a transition except by setting up the circumstances where it can happen.

        In my original comment above I was frustrated by the lack of information regarding “insight” experiences. If I am able to describe an absorption then isn’t it possible for those who have had these experiences to describe them too?

        I wonder what differences there would be to each person’s description and what similarities there might be. Are the similarities a sort of affect as I felt in my 1st absorption? Do the stories of the Buddhist doctrine describe their implication accurately? Or are they just interpretive stories superimposed upon them?

        I’d guess why more descriptions haven’t been encouraged is that the variety of specific descriptions is huge. I assume that is why the descriptions of the qualities given are of much more general aspects which are common, even within differing perceptions. But even further complicating the matter of description is that differing techniques probably lead to differing results.

        Thanks again.

  2. Niscientist Niscientist says:

    Is there any empirical proof to describe the spiritual state of “enlightenment” and “nirvana?”

    I am curious because I wonder how someone could practice a breathing and mental discipline technique to achieve some altered state of consciousness in hopes to work for this “enlightenment.” If nirvana is supposed to be a state that is ineffable, is this Eastern mystical concept used to describe a real state of mind or a metaphysical idea of what a human being could be?

    Also, in accordance to what is known about religious/spiritual experience: Is enlightenment some kind of hallucination sought out for to convince oneself to believe in an ambiguous ‘universal greater good?’

    • David S says:

      Niscientist. You might like to read ‘Zen and the Brain’ by James H. Austin, M.D.. He is a neuroscientist and Zen practitioner. He has ideas of what may be occurring during some altered states and proposes explanations of the biology of the brain during them. It is a dense read and the specifics of brain biology I found to go beyond my ability to take it all in, but by going through it I found he has simpler points which are very interesting. It will not address your larger questions of what nirvana is or how it is viewed/used, but it may give a hint of understanding the biology behind how these practices might achieve altered states of consciousness.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Hi Niscientist,

      I don’t think there’s any empirical proof of the state of nibbana, though what such proof would look like is part of the question. First you would have to have a properly testable definition of what ‘nibbana’ was, second you would have to investigate people who were said to have attained it, to see if they really had done so, and third you would have to do tests with people on the path to see if they were able to attain the state. So far as I know, none of this has been done. Or if it has been, it hasn’t been done with anything like the rigor necessary to settle the question.

      Perhaps the most tractable definition of nibbana is the one Mark alludes to, which is that it is the extinction of the three fires of greed, hatred, and ignorance.

      But NB: this doesn’t mean simply that one without greed, hatred, and ignorance has reached nibbana, since we all have periods without greed, hatred, or ignorance from time to time, and yet we are not enlightened.

      For one to have truly reached nibbana (at least, according to the texts) the roots of those fires must also extirpated, which means that any latent tendency to greed, hatred, and ignorance must also be gone. This means that from that time the enlightened person simply cannot have states of greed, hatred, or ignorance.

      Now, this is in the context of a person (like the Buddha) who retained desires for food, and who was able to direct very pointed commentary towards recalcitrant monks. That is to say, the “greed” and “hatred” that are extirpated do not eliminate the possibility of “wanting” and “being angry”.

      And then there’s the question of what counts as “eliminating ignorance”. Clearly it’s more than simply knowing that all things are impermanent, dukkha, and non-self, because many Buddhists and non-Buddhists claim to know these things, without being enlightened.

      I think perhaps it’s best just to leave aside questions of the final state, except as an idealized goal that might or might not be achievable, and work on making life a bit easier through the practice.

      • jos says:

        Doug,

        I have the impression that what you call ‘wanting’ and ‘being angry’ do not apply to arahants.
        From what I understand from reading the sutta’s and stories about persumed arahants I have the impression that they understand the needs of their bodies to move on from day to day with a minimal amount of dukkha. So they eat and use medicine to avoid unneccessairy stress, not so much because they ‘want’ food.
        When I look at the state of anger I would rule this out.
        Using authority and a certain amount of verbal pressure (the word scolding applies here I think) to get people moving would not neccessairily come from the root of anger.

        Abou ignorance, I think the sutta’s are clear.
        It’s ignorance of the cause of stress, the origination of stress, the cessation of stress and the path leading to cessation.

        To apply to the above example of anger:
        How does anger lead to stress, where does anger originate, under what circumstances does anger end and what physical or mental action does one need to make to end anger.
        And in the end: what mental action is needed to eliminate anger once and for all…?

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          Hi Jos, and thanks.

          Here we’re splitting some fine hairs. I believe that states of wanting and anger are simple mental sensations that arise and pass away in all of us, including arahants. The problem is when wanting becomes craving and clinging, or when anger becomes hatred. These pernicious developments happen when simple states of wanting and anger become infused with notions of “I”, “mine”, “myself”; when we identify with them (or use them to identify others) rather than seeing them as passing sensations.

          The arahant will see wanting and anger as not-I, not-mine, not-myself, and hence not be caught in them. However he or she will still want food, or have anger arise in certain circumstances, just as he or she will still feel pain when stubbing a toe.

          Again, this is only my understanding, since I have no direct understanding of what it would be to be an arahant.

          • jos says:

            Doug,

            Could be that we are on the same line, only differing in words.

            A very long time ago I was very angry at some people.
            Took me a couple of years to get over that and only with slow progress.
            And suddenly I ‘got it’. They were not hurting me anymore, I was hurting myself with my anger.

            Since then I like to compare anger with picking up a coal from a fire with bare hands with the intention of burning others.

            Since that moment anger won’t last too long, mostly it’s a flash. I’ve since that experienced it with some other feelings too, only when mindfulness is weak it they can last long. Many times it’s even hard to name the feeling.

            So if you refer to such a ‘flash’ of feeling I’m not going to argue.
            To be clear: I still at times experience far more than this flash, even of anger.

            However, in my understanding of the sutta’s and comments this is more or less related to the experience of the anagami. So guess we need to find an arahant to get a definite answer on this question.

            — Edit —

            Today I did an (unrelated) seach on mental factors ‘cetasikas’ and have to say I was off the mark in my post above.
            I should have known….

            The mind (citta) is like a film. Because it functions on very high speed we observe not the individual frames but a continuity.
            With each contact the mind arrises and passes away.
            It is exactly because of this feature of the mind that impermanence can be experienced.
            And because we don’t see the arising and passing of mind we assume a continuity, a self.
            This is the cause of stress.
            The teachings on the 5 aggregates all point to this changing mind. The easiest to understand would be ‘consciousness’, viññāṇa. When I pull the string on a guitar you can hear the sound. Not before that. And you can hear the sound change and fade. All individual moments of viññāṇa. After it’s faded sound and viññāṇa are gone.

            The arahant has full insight in the arrising and passing of the mind at each stage.
            The mind has to lose the idea of self because the ‘frames’ are clearly seen.
            Once this stage is reached all the unwholesome mental factors (akusala cetasikas) are unable to arise. Hence the continuing happiness after enlightenment.

            To bring this in a binary comparisation:
            The mind (each frame) can be in two states, good (kusala) or bad (akusala). Once an akusala citta arises there has to be stress. So to be free of stress we need to have a good state ‘forever’. There need to be only good frames in rest of the film.
            From this perspective it is impossible that an akusala state like anger arises for even a moment.
            To add extra complexity, the ‘mind frames’ of an arahant do not have kammic results and are called kiriya.

            Hope this is clear enough, if not please specify. I might be able to give some examples to clear.

  3. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Ni —

    I guess it all depends on what you mean by “nirvana.” There is the grand version of it we find in the Pali texts — the final escape from the wheel of birth and death, the ultimate ineffable blissful state, that sounds a lot like the union with Godhead that many other ancient Indian religions were after. Then there is the simple version — nibanna meaning simply the “extinguishing” of the three fires of greed, hatred and delusion and the reactive mind habits that are driven by them. If this is so then we are experiencing nirvana any time we can free ourselves from mental reactivity and be fully awake to our experience (when asked if he was a god or whatever, Gotama is supposed to have said, “I am one who is awake.”) We do have evidence that meditation develops areas of the brain responsible for interoception and proprioception. If we don’t demand that the goal of practice be some marvelous state that is very different from the life we live, and instead understand nirvana as being fully awake to this very life, we can see that it is a realistic possibility for anyone.

  4. Robert Schenck Robert Schenck says:

    There’s a wonderful old story about a Buddhist disciple who approached his teacher to inform him that he, the disciple, had awakened and freed himself from anger and dissatisfaction. The teacher leaned forward and tweaked the disciple’s nose.
    Robert

  5. Jim Jim says:

    Where in the body or brain would nirvana or hell sit? Though I’m no expert in Pali, I tend to think he is speaking metaphorically. Let’s remind ourselves, we are all confined not only to our own beliefs about language, but also the need to communicate to others in words they can relate to. With that, people actually remember the words which convey a speakers meaning to them, rather than the actual words of the speaker. Further, I doubt the Buddha meticulously chose every single word he ever uttered, imagining that future generations would spend their lives trying to squeeze every drop of possible meaning by which they could find some shortcut to peace (call it nirvana if you will). That is why fundamentally, Buddhism is a practice. not a religion. If you want it to be a religion, it is one of a million others; if you are going to squeeze the meaning from words written by its founder, for a kernel of advantage, you are in my opinion missing the boat. Lest we forget, these words were most likely not the exact terms used by Gotama, since he wrote nothing down, and they were “recorded” verbally for hundreds of years. Not to mention that his followers only decided to verbally record them after his death. So, its safe to say, that squeezing individuals terms for profound insight, is a futile exercise – though perhaps good entertainment/fantasy for the mind?

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