Tuesday October 21, 2008
Several years ago, whilst visiting the Buddhist sites of India, I paid a visit to the small town of Kushinagar, where the Buddha is said to have died. Whilst in Kushinagar, I made friends with a restaurant owner and his wife who, one day in conversation, said that there was a “very powerful” Burmese monk who lived in the town. When he meditated, they said, he levitated.
This sounded like the kind of thing that really should not be missed. I had come across levitating monks as a child in the pages of Tintin in Tibet, and had attempted, and failed, to levitate myself several times whilst still at school. Eventually I gave up, because, all things considered, levitation seemed a pretty difficult trick to pull off. But now, years later, I was offered the tantalising opportunity of seeing this thing in the flesh. So I asked if it was possible to see the monk in question, and to find out more about (or even to witness) his levitation. They shook their heads sadly. Unfortunately, they said, he was not in town this month. He would be back the following month. What, I asked, if I came back after a month? Could I see him then? Well, they said, no. Because he only meditated in private, so it was not possible to actually see him levitate. The more questions I asked, the more it became clear that here was a monk who (as, traditionally, Buddhist monks are told they should) kept his miraculous cards close to his chest – although not close enough, of course, for nobody at all to know about them.
So I left Kushinagar without clapping eyes on the levitating monk, and (given that neither I nor any of my Buddhist friends are capable, at least to my best knowledge of levitating) ever since I have had to content myself with the beautiful, luminous pictures painted by Tintin’s creator, Hergé.
I was reminded of this curiously elusive meditating monk the other day when I was reading Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. The passage is worth quoting in full:
“A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage.”
Suppose […] I seriously make such an assertion to you. Surely you’d want to check it out, see for yourself. There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity!
“Show me,” you say. I lead you to my garage. you look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle – but no dragon.
“Where’s the dragon?” you ask.
“Oh, she’s right here,” I reply, waving vaguely. “I neglected to mention that she’s an invisible dragon.”
You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon’s footprints.
“Good idea,” I say, “but this dragon floats in the air.”
Then you’ll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.
“Good idea, but he invisible fire is also heatless.”
You’ll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.
“Good idea, except that she’s an incorporeal dragon and the paint won’t stick.”
And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won’t work. now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? (p. 171)
That’s the trouble with dragons and levitating monks: they are damnably camera-shy. But I should leave this post here. Reliable reports have just come in informing me that, in the centre of Leicester just down the road from where I am writing this, there has been a sighting of levitating monk and a dragon discoursing on the nature of truth (dragons, all good Buddhists know, are brainy little critters) ten feet above the high street, outside of Marks & Spencer. I should hurry down there and secure myself some evidence before they disappear…
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