Dragons and Levitating Monks

Tuesday October 21, 2008

Dragon Aloft

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, Herg√©.

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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#1 · Jamie G.

21 October 2008

Right now, my favorite book… along with my pocket Buddha reader.

#2 · Loden Jinpa

21 October 2008

My teacher, a Tibetan Geshe, once told me a story about a yogi he met when he first arrived from Tibet. This yogi was not a Buddhist, but clearly a good meditator. One day this yogi said to Geshe-la, let me show you how I can levitate during meditation, it took me 20 years to perfect. This yogi went into meditation and started levitating just as he said he could. Once he finished, Geshe-la who had been patiently sitting there watching, said to him: You have wasted 20 years of your life learning a useless trick. You should have spent this time meditating on compassion. Compassion is far more useful!. The yogi got really angry and kicked my teacher out of his meditation room. Geshe-la left and returned to his house down the road.

The following day, there was a knock on Geshe-la’s door. He opened it and there stood the yogi. He said, you are right, I have wasted 20 years learning a simple trick, please teach me to meditate on compassion.

#3 · Will

21 October 2008

There are two different questions here, Loden. Your teacher’s story is about whether it is worth spending twenty years learning to levitate, but assumes that such a thing (as is the view of some Buddhist traditions) is in fact possible. To be sure, if it is possible, there are probably better ways of spending one’s time. But there are also worse ways. If possible, is it worth it? Probably not, although it may not do any harm. Is it possible? I see no evidence that this is so, and thus the question of whether it is worth it is somewhat academic...

But thing about levitating yogis and invisible dragons is that these things phenomena seem to disappear whenever we want to take a closer and more systematic look at them (as all good magicians know – I am reminded of the street magicians in the Lee Siegel book Net of Magic who, because they know all the cheap tricks behind the miracles, are sceptics through and through).

Will

#4 · Elee

21 October 2008

It’s funny, isn’t it, that most of the time, when people are good at something, they want to show off about it? You’d think, if it was possible for people to train themselves to levitate, that someone would have made a sport out of it (longest levitation, or furthest off the ground, or even some low-friction form of human curling?). Why is it that if someone can wire-walk between buildings or pull a bus with their teeth they do it for an audience, but when people can levitate they suddenly get shy?

#5 · Will

21 October 2008

Fie upon you, you unbeliever! It’s all to do with monastic professional ethics…

Now that you mention it, I believe that human curling is a popular sport in certain remote Himalayan provinces.

W

#6 · A.

21 October 2008

To me, there seems to be a perspective that is being overlooked a little here: that of the restaurant owner and his wife. For the sake of argument, I’ve assumed they actually believe in their levitating monk.

Many of us believe in science, and while we don’t believe in dragons in our garage, we do believe in a host of other things that we can’t see or demonstrate existence for. And yes, we could go into a laboratory and demand proof, but how many of us have? For us it’s enough that there is a consensus belief. We all believe in various ‘scientific’ facts. But even in this lifetime I’ve jettisoned scientific ‘facts’ in favor of new ‘more accurate facts’. But did the old facts exist while I believed in them? Relative to me, they did as much as the new ones do. At least, I think so.

Course, if you believe the restaurant owner, his wife (and Tintin) are all in on the hoax the point is moot.

#7 · Ed Knight

23 October 2008

David Hume asserted that even something as obvious as the sun rising tomorrow was simply belief since “tomorrow” doesn’t exist “yet”.

#8 · Loden Jinpa

23 October 2008

Although, just believing in something without evidence is at best silly :)

#9 · Will

23 October 2008

But, Ed, Hume recognises what he calls the “several degrees of evidence” (Treatise of Human Nature 1.3.11), and although we cannot be certain that the sun will rise tomorrow – this is an inductive claim – there is a pretty good probability. Surely it is important to evaluate various claims on their merits, rather lump them all together as “simply belief.” Some beliefs are more warranted than others.

I’m not sure what you mean, A., by jettisoning scientific facts for more accurate ones. My first concern here is that not all facts are ‘scientific’ in a narrow sense. The fact that I like ice cream is not one of the facts of science, but it is a fact. So there is a need for different kinds of knowledge. Yet, I think for something to be considered a fact, it should at least be testable (you can feed me ice-cream and see if I smile of frown, for example), and that is partly why these invisible dragons are so pesky.
W

#10 · Alex

24 October 2008

Maybe I shouldn’t have called them facts.

I’m not a scientist, just a lay person. But there was a time when I would have told you that nothing can be in two places at once. Now I am told that the correct answer is some ‘things’ can be in two places at once – depending on what you mean by ‘thing’ and ‘place’. I’ve never seen this, but its shown up in enough of the ‘Quantum Physics for Lay People’ books that I’ve struggled through that I’ve added this ‘two places at once’ idea to my realm a possibilities – even if only in the very controlled settings of labs. Which I never go in, nor do I plan to go in (though, I’d welcome the opportunity).

Still, the idea of this ‘fact’ is useful and somewhat enjoyable to me.

So, I guess all I was saying was: what about the restaurant owner and his wife? Is it possible that they’re something like me, but just with a different view of what makes something a ‘fact’ or ‘possible’ based on their subscription to a different power structure? And is there anything of value for me in trying to learn about that view (as opposed to just debunking it)?

#11 · Amy

24 October 2008

Just wanted to let you know that I listed your blog as one of the blogs that I love!

With gassho,
Amy

#12 · Fiske

27 October 2008

The first point about Will’s post is that his examples are asymetrical.

Presumably, the Indian restaurant owner and his wife actually believed the monk could levitate. The example provided by Sagan, an atheist and debunker of irrational belief, was created to demonstrate such beliefs can always be placed beyond the reach of empirical proof. The true parallel of the levitating monk, for Western religions such as Christianity, would be things like belief in the ability of saints to perform miracles, devine intervention by God in medical cases as a result of prayer, possibly even a McCain victory in the upcoming U.S. presidential election (surely a subject of much prayer among a certain segment of U.S. Christians).

The second point is that what these examples illustrate is a wide-spread desire for the miraculous, however that might manifest itself. A significant component of such desires is the validation of religious beliefs. This demonstrates a lack of faith, rather than what one might suppose to be a demonstration of it. Faith, after all, requires no proof.

A final point is that we are surrounded by the miraculous. Our very existence is itself a miracle. It is human nature, I suppose, to become accustomed to what we experience constantly and to lose sight of the wonder plainly manifested to us. As Oscar Wilde expressed it: “The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”

A deeper, more enriched spirituality is available to anyone who wishes to pursue it by rousing themselves from the illusion that our common, every day experiences are nothing special.

Fiske

#13 · Fiske

27 October 2008

Oops! :-) Obviously divine NOT “devine.”

Fiske

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