Devas seem to be an accepted reality in the suttas. Their rebirth realms are a worthy goal for practitioners not set on extinction, and their wholesome qualities are to be revered. They are sometimes portrayed as having knowledge “beyond the human”, I’m thinking of bāhiyasuttaṃ but I’m sure there are many more examples. However, devas seem to just kind of “appear”, I was wondering if there’s any record of trying to contact and conversate with devas in the suttas or later?
Maybe this kind of thing fits in better with the tantric/magickal syncretism of vajrayāna. After all, what prompted this question is my personal study of the history of Western Magick, there seems to be an awful lot of attention given to contacting, conversing with , gaining knowledge from angels, daimons, and even demons in these traditions. Daimon/genii belief seems quite widespread in the ancient world: Chaldea, Israel, Arabia, Persia, Hellas (Ancient Greece), Rome. (I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some common PIE-root with daimon/deva.) Daimons are usually invisible spirits that inhabit the same world as humans, and can influence and even possess humans. Socrates in his legal defense mentions that he has a personal daimon as a disembodied voice that sometimes warned him but never possessed his actions. Eudaimonia, the philosophical goal or close to it in much of Hellenic Philosophy (Stoicism, Academic Skepticism, and Epicureanism), usually translated as happiness or well-being, literally means possessed of a good spirit, and has to do not just with the internal state of the person but also the condition of their life environment (something like having good luck/fortune). In Pre-Islamic Arabia there was a belief in “djinn” as neutral spirits, this is the root of the Latinate “genius”, which in the Roman Republic and even into the Empire were sometimes local to a place, a protective spirit, “a genius loci” (I think some Earth-dwelling devas are said to inhabit certain places, like Jeta’s Grove…). Also, the concept of a personal guardian genius, maybe this was assimilated into Christian Theology as the concept of the Holy Guardian Angel. In the apocryphal Testament of Solomon and in the Qur’an, the Temple of Solomon is said to have been contructed by demons/djinn under the command of Solomon with the help of angels. There is a strand of Western Magick going back to the Late Middle Ages, into the Renaissance, and even through the Enlightenment up to the present day of “Solomonic Magick” in which the mage, imitating Solomon, invokes angels and evokes daimons (in some cases, demons) to do their bidding or to gain knowledge from.
There is one sutta where a monk tries to recruit a deva to help him with his practice, and the deva replies rather indignantly:
I’m no dependent of yours,
nor am I your servant. ~ SN 9.14
So, yeah. I don’t recommend it.
Entering into relations of command and exchange with others is stressful enough even here in just the human realm, let alone across dimensions. You really don’t want to get involved in such intergalactic drama, even if it might look exciting and fun on TV.
Not sure this fits the bill exactly, but in AN 8.64, the Buddha does purposefully contact the beings of the various heavenly realms and inquire about their lifespan, food etc.:
Then it occurred to me, ‘What if I were to perceive light and see visions; and associate with those deities, converse, and engage in discussion? Then my knowledge and vision would become even more purified.’
Then it occurred to me, ‘What if I were to perceive light and see visions; and associate with those deities, converse, and engage in discussion; and find out which orders of gods those deities come from; and what deeds caused those deities to be reborn there after passing away from here; and what deeds caused those deities to have such food and such an experience of pleasure and pain; and that these deities have a life-span of such a length; and whether or not I have previously lived together with those deities. Then my knowledge and vision would become even more purified.’
So after some time … I found out whether or not I have previously lived together with those deities.
Hm, what comes is MN 127 with the mysterious Anuruddha. Not exactly what you are looking for, but there is certainly a structural methodology. Not necessarily to contact deities, but at least to know of them.
I suppose one of the reason why we don’t see much discussions on ways to achieve this or on similar events in later literature is that the Thervadin monastics decided they can’t talk about any of that to the laity… hence a lack of stories and methods.
But there is already a fair amount of details in the suttas at least (link between jhanas and heavenly realms, development of the divine ear, divine eye, detailed cosmology etc)
In term of modern accounts, I remember now that the biography of Mae Chee Kaew by Bhikkhu Dick Silaratano includes some account of her adventures with some non-physical beings. The whole book is a great read, but here are a few passages that deal with her exploration of the other world:
As she emerged slightly from deep samādhi, Mae Chee Kaew found her mind entering a familiar world of intersecting spiritual energies; a world occupied by countless realms of nonphysical living beings. Some of these beings hailed from the dark and lowly regions, where they suffered the consequences of their evil deeds; others came from the lofty spheres of radiance inhabited by celestial devas and brahmas. It was as though her meditation delivered her to an open gate, where her heart felt the pull of competing force fields, each vying for her attention. Ajaan Mun had called it “access concentration”, warning her how vulnerable she was to the disparate spiritual energies that she might encounter there, and how she must establish steadfast control over her mind before stepping out the gate. (p.97)
Sometimes her consciousness separated from her body and wandered to explore the heavenly realms, or the different levels of the brahma world. She visited the various types of subtly formed beings, called devas, who exist in a divine hierarchy of increasing subtlety and refinement — beings who have arrived at a fortunate and happy condition as a result of their good kamma. She met terrestrial devas — luminous deities dwelling in forests, groves and trees — who are born there because of their strong natural affinity to the earthly plane. Although their visible presence existed beyond the range of human senses, they were clearly visible to Mae Chee Kaew’s divine eye. She viewed them as beings of contentment whose blissful lives were often preoccupied by sensory pleasures. (p.113)
God, I was just being tongue in cheek. Trying to be funny. I did grow up around the Yoruba traditions in my Brazilian family. There are definitely specific offering commitments for each orixa, including animal sacrifices (it’s not my place to judge, just saying what is) and taboos to follow if you follow a particular deity, etc. You don’t just get spiritual powers from the deities without establishing a gift exchange so to speak. But as a trained anthropologist I really should have avoided terms like “most cultures” and was just responding to humor with humor with no specifics in mind. So I apologize for the generalization.
Just to clarify, I was being quite serious (laughing emojis aside ). I have a couple friends who have had good relationships with devas, and the best thing those gods ever did for them was to gently direct them towards the Buddhist path.
So, there’s no need to get involved in this kind of thing cause you’re already here. It’s like looking for a taxi when you’re already within walking distance of your destination. Just walk the path and your wish will be satisfied. No need for divine intervention.
I like having a little relationship with them. Like taking care of nature devas we share this planet with. I think as a buddhist, it is okay to foster a relationship with them without taking refuge in them. And like a human neighbor, sometimes you need flour to make your cookies and as a thank you, you give them some cookies. I kind of treat devas that way. Not for the big important spiritual stuff, but for some general obstacle clearing life stuff that can sometimes get in the way of maintaining a solid practice. I take care of your forest and offer some herbs or whatnot before entering and you scratch my back. I think there is a lot to learn from the many approaches of the different Asian Buddhist cultures around this kind of syncretism.
That said, you’re probably correct when it comes to soliciting favors for improving our meditation practice and the deeper spiritual insights. But in case some deva Buddhist converts are there helping guard my practice, I still like to say a thank you and dedicate merit to them and give them some offerings in thanks.
I think “expectation” and “demanding” are key words here, but it’s okay to request nicely for stuff sometimes. It’s up to them if they want to help our not. Immersing myself in traditional Thai medicine (herbalism, massage, etc.) has taught me a lot in this regard. I feel totally fine soliciting help from Ganesh or a Yoruba deity in my healing work. It’s for the benefit of someone else. This is my take on magic and my relationship with devas, especially as a lay healer. The issue is when we start feeling entitled and as you say expect or demand their help.
Not too uncommon in traditional magick, even among the learned/grimoiric European texts, the “eye of newt, toe of frog”, etc. trope is not too far from the reality of blood magick where body parts are thought to hold some power.
If you allow me to ask you…
What do you think is the ontological status of devas? Are they dependent on human thoughts to exist? Or do they exist independently from us (but in dependence to other conditions, like everything conditioned is)?
Personally I am very agnostic about them. I have a scientific leaning mind. But I choose to interact with them as if they were real—either literally or metaphorically (like a personification or the forest for a forest deva). So even if it is just metaphoric, it’s a nice way to set a good and kind intention with my relationship to that forest, for example.
Following this thread made me realise that my concept of Devas is rather generalised. Looking at this section on Access to Insight showed me whereabouts in the Thirty-one Planes of Existence all the different beings hang out.
Sharing the link for others who want to check out exactly where different types of being fit into Buddhist cosmology.