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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 2: Lam-rim (Graded Stage) Material > Extraphysical and Extrasensory Powers

Extraphysical and Extrasensory Powers

Alexander Berzin
Berlin, Germany, November 1999

Buddha-fields in the Pores of a Buddha

Today we are going to speak about a Buddha’s extraphysical and extrasensory powers. We will analyze whether such things actually make any sense or are they just interesting stories.

I would like to look at two aspects here. The first is some of the descriptions that we find in the Mahayana sutras. Many Mahayana sutras begin with a description of the extraordinary scene in which Buddha is delivering the sutra: there are millions and millions of different beings present from all sorts of realms. The texts then describe how all the Buddhas and their Buddha-fields are also present. In each pore of the Buddha’s body there is a Buddha-field with a Buddha in it, also giving teachings to millions of beings. All the Buddhas in all these Buddha-fields are also present in each of the other Buddhas’ fields. The depicted scene becomes an incredible array.

We can ask, “What could this possibly be referring to? What is the purpose of giving this kind of description?” I don’t know whether or not we can take such descriptions on a literal level. My tendency is not to take them so literally, but to try to understand them in terms of any possible counterparts from science. But, in addition, I think here the main significance of the description is the analogy it has with Brahma’s net, an image that we find in other Indian sources, not just Buddhist ones. Brahma’s net is a net that has a jewel at each cross-weaving of the threads. Each jewel has reflected in it all the other jewels. The analogy is with each pore of the Buddha having reflected in its Buddha-field all the other Buddhas in all the other Buddha-fields.

I think that this is a good symbol for the network comprising all the teachings of the Buddha. Many great masters have emphasized that if we really go deeply into each word of Buddha’s teachings, in all its various aspects, we can understand all the rest of the teachings reflected in it. In other words, all the various teachings of the Buddha fit harmoniously together.

This is an important point that the great masters make. We need to connect all the various aspects of the teachings with each other. The teaching method in Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism, is to give students, gradually, different pieces of a very complex jigsaw puzzle. In fact, Buddha taught in that way as well. If you look at the sutras, each sutra gives a few more pieces of the puzzle and it is up to us, as students and disciples, to put the puzzle together. If we are given an already assembled puzzle, we don’t learn anything. It is in the process of trying to put the puzzle together that we develop ourselves. Also, of course, this gives us an opportunity to develop a tremendous amount of patience and perseverance, because if we don’t have a strong enough motivation, we are going to give up and just throw the puzzle away.

What is more, this is not like an ordinary puzzle. It’s not a linear puzzle in which just one piece fits into another but, in fact, every piece fits into every other piece. It is a multidimensional puzzle. So, when we are working on putting these pieces together, it is important to put them together in a network fashion. In other words, when we learn a new teaching we don’t just look at it as an independent entity in isolation, but we try to plug it into the network and have the whole network now work on a larger scale by including this new piece of the puzzle.

For instance, at the beginning of our Buddhist studies perhaps we learn about the safe direction of refuge. We then learn about the four noble truths and we plug it in and analyze, for instance, “ How does that deepen my understanding of refuge – the Dharma refuge, for example?” The same applies to learning about the nature of the mind: it is not just for meditation by itself, but it again strengthens our understanding of refuge, our understanding of the precious human life, of Buddha-nature, of everything. To take each new piece of the puzzle and attach it to every other piece that we have already becomes a very interesting task. In the process of doing that, we see more deeply how some of the other pieces that we already had obtained now fit better together in slightly different ways.

When we talk about these Buddha-fields, then, the Buddha-fields can be understood as representing different teachings of the Buddha. In each Buddha-field – in other words, in each teaching – there is a Buddha imparting a different aspect of the Buddha’s teachings. Moreover, each pore of the Buddha, which has a Buddha-field in it, is reflecting every other Buddha-field. This would represent that all the teachings fit together in each teaching, in each pore of the Buddha. This is a very good symbol, then, for Mahayana. “Mahayana” means the vast vehicle of mind. It is incredibly vast in the sense that it includes the understanding of everything and it shows how everything is reflected in everything else.

We may ask whether there is something similar to this idea in Western thought, particularly Western science, and I think there is. If we search for an analogy with the Buddhist teaching of “ all in one and one in all,” I think we can find it in the field of cloning, whereby from one cell of a body we can generate the whole body. In fact, in each cell we have all the information, all the material, reflective of the entire body so that, in effect, there is an entire body encapsulated in every single body cell. Similarly, in every teaching of the Buddha, if we look deeply enough, we could find contained all the other teachings and we can develop all the other teachings from any one teaching.

This is also very helpful for encouraging a nonsectarian, nonpartisan view of the teachings. That does not refer simply to nonsectarianism between the Tibetan traditions and the Zen traditions, or the Kagyu and Gelug tradition, but even within one tradition, a nonsectarian attitude toward all the various teachings that are present in that tradition. Often within one tradition, we’ll get one teaching, one particular initiation, one Buddha-form, that we are quite attracted to, and we don’t want to hear about any of the other Buddha-forms. We become very closed-minded and that is not at all a helpful attitude. For example, “It is only Tara and nothing else; I don’t want to look at any of these others.” So, this is one point our topic covers: this interconnectedness of all of the teachings as symbolized by Buddha-fields in every pore of the Buddha.

Examining the Extraordinary in Light of a Multidimensional Universe

We’ve seen that some of the fantastic things that we read about in the teachings can perhaps be understood as metaphors. Now, the question is, does that mean that everything fantastic in the teachings is just a metaphor, or can we understand any of it in a more literal fashion?

One area for investigation that stands out prominently in the teachings is all the extraphysical and extrasensory powers that not only a Buddha has, but also that we gain along the path as a result of developing perfect single-pointed concentration. They are not even limited to Buddhist practitioners, but non-Buddhist yogis gain them as well. These powers include the ability to multiply ourselves into many different forms simultaneously, to grow bigger and smaller like Milarepa sheltering in the tip of the yak horn, to disappear and then reappear instantly in another place, to read people’s minds, and all these sorts of things.

I think that a way of possibly making sense of all this is suggested by some of the latest scientific theories postulating that our universe is not just a four-dimensional universe, with three spatial dimensions and one time dimension, but it actually consists of ten or eleven or even twenty-one dimensions. With such a multidimensional analysis, it is possible to start going in the direction of a unified field theory, in which relativity, gravity, electromagnetic forces, and so on, all fit together and can be understood if analyzed in terms of all these dimensions. Let’s speak just in terms of ten dimensions.

To understand this analogy with a ten-dimensional universe, let’s start with a simple example from a novel entitled Flatland, written by Edwin Abbott, a British schoolmaster at the end of the nineteenth century. This novel describes a two-dimensional land, in other words, a flat land without any height. Its inhabitants are flat beings in the shapes of squares, circles, triangles, and so on. Naturally, all they can perceive is two dimensions. One day, a three-dimensional being visited Flatland. First, the visitor started walking through Flatland. The people there were amazed because, as they could only see two dimensions, what they saw was that in one place there was a being in the shape of a footprint, and then it disappeared and instantly, somewhere further along, another being with the same shape materialized. Then the being continued moving in the same manner, without any seeming connection between its appearances.

The three-dimensional being then put the five fingers of his hand down, and suddenly, the Flatlanders saw this visitor multiply into five different circular beings. Next, the three-dimensional being stuck his hand and the rest of his body through the plane of Flatland and all of a sudden the people in Flatland saw this being go from something very small to something huge, changing shapes and getting smaller and bigger.

Further, this three-dimensional being was able to speak to the Flatlanders, and it was quite amazing because, from his perspective of being above their plane, this three-dimensional being could see tremendously far distances and hear tremendously far things that the Flatlanders could neither see nor hear. This was simply because he had a higher perspective than they had. When the three-dimensional visitor tried to explain to the two-dimensional beings that there actually were three dimensions, they could not understand. The only thing that the three-dimensional being could say was that, from their perspective, this third dimension looked like a dot. This is because if Flatlanders try to look up, they can’t really do that. All they can see of up, from their two-dimensional perspective, is a dot.

Besides being a lovely story, this is actually a brilliant analysis that I think can be applied nicely to the ten-dimensional universe. Imagine that when you attain single-pointed concentration, you are able to go beyond the limitations of our four dimensions and perceive a greater number of spatial dimensions. More especially, when you become a Buddha, you are able to perceive not only a ten-dimensional world that functions in a ten-dimensional universe, but you can also manifest yourself in ten-dimensional forms.

Now, if such an advanced being or, to make it simpler, a Buddha, were to come to our world of four-dimensional beings, the way that we would see this Buddha would be analogous to the way that Flatlanders would see a three-dimensional being appearing in their realm. The Buddha would appear in all sorts of different shapes, often multiple, would get bigger and smaller, and after appearing in one place, would disappear and then reappear elsewhere. Also, in the same way that the three-dimensional visitor to Flatland, because of having the perspective of more dimensions, could see tremendous distances, go at enormous speeds, and so on; likewise, a Buddha would be able to see tremendous distances and so on.

All of this, of course, would look quite extraordinary to us from our four-dimensional perspective. This is because, due to the limitations of our bodies and their cognitive equipment, we are unable to perceive the other dimensions. From the scientific point of view, the other six dimensions are described as all being contained in a dot. In other words, just as the Flatlanders can only see height in terms of a dot, likewise, from our four-dimensional perspective, we can only perceive the other dimensions as a dot.

When the Flatlanders saw the three-dimensional visitor, they only saw a certain aspect of this three-dimensional being. We can also think of it as if they had seen the two-dimensional shadow of the three-dimensional being. I think that we can possibly apply this simile to understand a little about the relation between Sambhogakaya and Nirmanakaya, the two types of Form Bodies of a Buddha.

Sambhogakaya is a corpus of multiple bodies making full use of the Mahayana teachings. These bodies could be understood tentatively as being like ten-dimensional bodies of a Buddha. The Sambhohakaya bodies only appear in “pure lands,” not in our ordinary universe, and there, they can only be seen and heard by arya bodhisattvas, who obviously have single-pointed concentration. In our world, however, all that we are able to see would be something like shadows or, in a sense, “ portions” of the Sambhogakaya. Those shadows would be the Nirmanakaya, which is how the Sambhogakaya appears in our four dimensions. Nirmanakaya is a corpus of bodies that are emanations of the Sambhogakaya. Being emanations does not necessarily mean that these four-dimensional bodies are projected out from inside ten-dimensional Sambhogakaya bodies. They could be like shadows or reflections of them.

This, of course, is only an analogy to help us try to make sense of these Form Bodies of a Buddha. But, in Maitreya’s Uttaratantra, The Furthest Everlasting Continuum, we do find Nirmanakaya bodies described as being like reflections of the Buddha in the clear water lakes of our minds. This gives us something to think about.

[For a more precise explanation, see: Fine Points Concerning the Physical Bodies of Buddhas and Arhats.]

Viewing a Buddha’s Extraphysical and Extrasensory Powers as More Than Mere Metaphors

I personally find this analogy with a multidimensional universe very helpful because, whether or not it is an accurate explanation of what is going on with a Buddha, it certainly starts to make a little more sense of these extraordinary physical and mental powers that a Buddha has.

In Tibetan, there are different words for the mind and body of a sentient being and of a Buddha. A Buddha is not a sentient being. Thus, we have different terms for a limited mind and a limited body, and for an enlightening mind and an enlightening body. The same twofold classification goes for speech and activity as well. A sentient being is someone who has a limited mind and a limited body. Therefore, I usually translate the Tibetan term for such a person as “limited being” rather than “sentient being.”

Here, in our analogy, “limited” can be understood in terms of functioning only in four dimensions. An enlightening body, speech, mind, activity and so on, would function fully in all ten dimensions. This is similar to the fact that the body, speech, mind, and activity of the Flatlanders are quite limited compared to those of the three-dimensional being.

When we get a teaching like this, we can begin to plug it into some of the other pieces of the Dharma “jigsaw puzzle,” and it becomes incredibly interesting. For example, we could say that Buddha-nature is ten-dimensional. We all exist already in ten dimensions. The Flatlanders, for instance, actually do exist in three dimensions. Therefore, in general, mind, body, all of these things, do not innately have the limitations of four dimensions.

From one point of view, we can say that our body, speech, and mind all have the potential to function ten-dimensionally like those of a Buddha. Alternatively, looking from the Nyingma dzogchen point of view, we can say that we already have a ten-dimensional body, speech, and mind. That is to say, we already have an enlightening body, speech, and mind, although we cannot see or use them. Due to our limited minds, we cannot perceive these other higher dimensions. But if we could now perceive in terms of a ten-dimensional perspective, we would be able to see what has always been there. In fact, in tantra practice, we imagine that we actually have this higher perspective and we now possess all the abilities of an enlightening body, speech, mind, and activity.

The Flatlanders appear to exist solidly in only two dimensions, unrelated to each other, but that is not based on actual reality. Actual reality is that there are more than just two dimensions. Similarly, the limitation of our mind to four dimensions makes things appear to be independently existent, unrelated to other things. However, from a ten-dimensional point of view, one could see the total interaction and dependent arising of everything – infinite karmic relationships, and so on.

That limitation of a Flatlander’s mind is not an innate limitation of the mind. It is a fleeting thing, something that can pass. We can remove that limitation because, if we examine carefully, we see that this is not how the mind actually exists. If the Flatlanders could gain the understanding and the perspective of three dimensions, then this limitation of their minds would vanish and they would be able to see more dimensions. Likewise, the limitations of our minds are what are called “ fleeting stains,” something that can be removed. They are not an innate aspect of the mind. The mind is capable of functioning and perceiving in ten dimensions.

Absorbed, Single-pointed Concentration: The Gateway to Extrasensory and Extraphysical Powers

The gateway to the perspective of the higher dimensions is absorbed single-pointed concentration, particularly if we can fine-tune it to focus on a tiny dot. Single-pointed concentration, in general is the gateway to the higher dimensions, which even non-Buddhists can access. However, I think that going really deeper and actually gaining full access to ten dimensions is the preserve of tantra.

In the highest class of tantra, anuttarayoga tantra, during the generation stage, we develop single-minded concentration focused first on a very large, detailed visualization and then, on the subtle generation stage, single-pointed concentration focused on a tiny drop. That tiny drop contains inside it an incredibly huge amount of detail. Inside the drop, for example, could be the entire Kalachakra mandala with 722 deities. In the heart of the central deity of that miniscule mandala could be a drop with an even tinier visualization inside it. This exceedingly fine-tuning of concentration is then used during the complete stage to penetrate the vital points of the body’s subtle energy system, move certain energies within it and, eventually, through complicated, extremely advanced yoga methods, get the mind to become increasingly more subtle. The aim is to gain access to our subtlest level of mind and energy, the clear light level. This is because the clear light level is the most efficient level of mind for gaining nonconceptual cognition of voidness and is the level of mind and energy that is the actual gateway to Buddhahood. Voidness is the total absence of impossible ways of existing.

In our analogy, the clear light level would be the gateway into these higher dimensions. In other words, with complete stage practice, we apply our absorbed single-pointed concentration to focus inside our subtle body, in the subtle channels, the chakras, and so on. With this intensely focused concentration, we make not only our mind, but also all our subtle energies converge into a very fine point. I think that making the mind and all the subtle energies come together into this very fine point is the entrance to gaining much fuller access to those higher dimensions. Perhaps this has something to do with the scientists’ explanation that the higher dimensions all exist in a point.

These are some thoughts that we can pursue about the various extraphysical and extrasensory powers. To determine whether this analogy of the higher dimensions actually is a correct understanding of the Buddha’s teachings, we have to actually develop and experience these powers. However, I think that the benefit of looking at them in this way is that at least it helps us to start taking these teachings about the extraphysical powers and so on seriously and to accept that maybe they actually refer to something that is physically possible and explainable. They are not just magic powers.

That kind of approach is, of course, the Buddhist method. The Buddhist method is at least to take all the teachings seriously and, if we do not understand them, to try to investigate and go deeper, and try to figure out what is it they are talking about, instead of just dismissing them as fairy tales. So, what I have explained here is just an attempt to look more seriously at these perplexing aspects of the Buddha’s teachings.

Question : The gateway to these powers, then, is concentration and not understanding?

Answer : Yes. The extrasensory and extraphysical powers are all gained as a byproduct of the absorbed, single-pointed concentration of shamatha – zhinay in Tibetan – a stilled and settle state of mind. These powers are not attainable through an intellectual understanding, but only through experience.

My teacher, Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche, who was one of the teachers of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, used to describe it quite nicely. He said that it is quite important to realize that these extrasensory powers and so on are just byproducts of perfect concentration and are not the aim of attaining perfect concentration. The purpose of attaining such concentration is to apply it to the correct understanding of voidness, reality. He said that it is like when we go to the store to buy rice. When we buy rice, it comes in a paper bag. The purpose of buying the rice is to get the rice, not to get the paper bag. But even if we don’t want the bag, we get it anyway. We can’t be given the rice without it being in a bag. In this analogy, the rice is like single-pointed concentration and the paper bag is like the extrasensory and extraphysical powers.

The Limitations of Our Body and Mind Are Not Innate

Question : When you were talking about the Flatlanders, you said that it is obvious that their limitations are not innate to the body and mind in general. But I couldn’t see enough logical proof in the explanations that you gave. So I want to go into that point a little more if that is okay. Can you elaborate on how to analyze properly whether or not something is innate to an object, be it mind or body or whatever?

Answer : The way I explained it was an oversimplification. Actually, when we talk about gaining the extraphysical powers, all that we are overcoming are some of our physical limitations. And with the extrasensory powers, we are overcoming simply some of the limitations of our minds. But the actual nature of the purest level of our body and mind is the subtlest clear light level, and that level is not innately limited.

More specifically, there are two truths about everything: the conventional and the deepest truth. The conventional or relative or superficial truth about things is their appearance. The deepest truth about them is how they exist. They exist devoid of impossible ways of existing, and this means they exist as what dependently arises.

Here, with perfect concentration, all we are able to do is overcome some of the limitations concerning appearances: the extent of appearances that we can see or hear or know, and the extent of the appearances in which we can manifest. So, regarding mind, we are dealing with the aspect of mind that is able to know the conventional truth of the appearance of things. We are not dealing with the aspect of mind that is able to know the deepest truth of how things exist. We could make many distinctions here, but I was mostly thinking in terms of cognizing dependent arising, the interconnection of things. That again can be understood on many levels, but to know it on the deepest level requires seeing the deepest truth of how things exist.

Now, the question is: what causes the mind to be limited? What causes it to be limited are the habits of confusion by which we believe that the confusing, deceptive appearances that we ordinarily perceive refer to actual reality. It is very complex, because we are differentiating here limitations of perceiving appearances and limitations of perceiving how appearances exist. Now, when we talk about the limitations of perceiving how things exist, then it is a bit easier to explain. The more we examine the confusing, deceptive appearances we perceive, the more we find that the manner in which they appear to exist cannot be validated. Whereas, when we examine correct understanding of how things exist, what we discover can be validated by many different methods.

Now correct understanding and confused incorrect understanding are mutually exclusive. This means that both of them cannot be present in one moment of a person’s cognition. This also means that one can replace the other. Since correct understanding can be validated, then the more we examine it, the stronger it gets. As for the confusion, the more we examine it, the weaker it gets and, because one can replace the other, then correct understanding can eliminate confusion. Therefore, the confusion that prevents the mind from perceiving how things exist can be removed. It is a fleeting stain.

As I briefly mentioned, the habits of our unawareness or ignorance cause us to continue believing that the confusing appearances that our mind produces of how things exist correspond to reality. But in addition, they also cause our mind to continue producing these confusing, deceptive appearances. The confusing deceptive appearance of how things exist is that they establish their existence independently, by their own power, from their own sides. This means, in simpler language, that everything appears to exist on its own, as if it existed independently of everything else. When we replace our unawareness and confusion with correct understanding, we realize that such a deceptive appearance does not correspond to anything real. In actuality, everything exists dependently on everything else.

When our mind, strengthened by a pure bodhichitta aim to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all limited beings, becomes thoroughly familiar with voidness – the absence of impossible ways of existing – it stops producing the deceptive appearances of things existing independently on their own. Thus, when we completely overcome the limitations of perceiving how things exist, we also completely overcome the limitations of perceiving the extent of what exists. No matter what we see, we see it interconnected and interdependent with everything else that ever existed in the past, that exists now, and that will ever exist in the future. Thus the mind of a Buddha is omniscient in knowing everything in the ten directions and three times and, moreover, the bodies of a Buddha can appear everywhere in any form simultaneously.

Therefore, I think that we cannot really approach the discussion of the limitations of the body and mind being innate or not in terms of cognition in only two dimensions being contradicted by cognition of three dimensions. I think we would have to discuss this issue from the point of view of confusion versus understanding. To argue that perceiving things in two dimensions is a fleeting stain, because it can be replaced by perceiving things in three dimensions, is not a valid argument.

Question: For Flatlanders to overcome their limitations and see three dimensions, then, do they need to develop single-pointed concentration?

Answer: Yes, but this is not the point of Buddhist practice. For example, bardo beings – referring to beings in the period between death and rebirth – and beings in the god realms are able to know their past lives. They have various extrasensory powers just by virtue of having the kind of body and mind particular to their state. Bardo beings can also go to the other side of the world in an instant and that sort of thing. They have such powers. So, what does this indicate? It indicates that acquiring these extrasensory powers, these abilities to see in higher dimensions, whether through concentration or by being born with them, is no big deal.

On the other hand, the Indian master Atisha makes quite a good point in his Lamp to the Path to Enlightenment, an important text in several schools of Tibetan Buddhism. He says that the extrasensory and extraphysical powers are extremely helpful. Why? Because if we can read other people’s minds, we have a clearer idea of how to help them understand what their problems are, and so on. So, developing these powers is useful, though, in and of themselves, just to use them for magic tricks is nothing.

We can see that reading other people’s minds certainly comes from single-pointed concentration. Whether or not we can actually hear the other person’s voice in our head, that’s another matter, I don’t know. But, if we want to know more deeply about somebody, then if we have an absolutely quiet mind with no thoughts, no judgments, no preconceptions, and we focus single-pointedly on the person in terms of his or her physical expression, body language, tone of voice, and so forth, we can you know a lot about the other person. We can “read” him or her.

I should add, however, that we also need to know something about the culture and background of the person. Otherwise it is rather difficult to actually read the signs. I can think of one very simple example from my own experience. The first time that I was able to teach Buddhism publicly in Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union, I sat on a platform on a chair and crossed my legs. My translator whispered to me that in Russian society crossing your legs in front of an audience is considered arrogant and impolite. You need to sit with both legs down if you are on a stage in front of an audience. Also, I should deliver my lecture standing up, not sitting down. Coming from an American background, I thought that speaking to an audience while sitting and crossing your legs indicates that you are relaxed and that it establishes a warmer contact with the people. So, like that, if we don’t know the culture of someone, we can misread what we see.