SuttaCentral

EBT perspective on devas and siddhis?


#1

Many modern interpreters of Buddhism claim that references to devas and siddhis are arbitrary cultural baggage, and that any time the Buddha talked about such things he was speaking in metaphor.

I wonder, what have EBT scholars written about this perspective, either affirming or refuting? can anyone provide links to these articles/posts?

Many thanks


#2

Hi, I recommend these articles, not sure if all are free online:

Analayo - The Buddha’s Fire Miracles
Granoff - The Ambiguity of Miracles. Buddhist Understandings of Supernatural Power
Fiordalis - Miracles in Indian Buddhist Narratives and Doctrine
Marasinghe - Gods in Early Buddhism

There is no doubt that even the earliest Buddhist texts conceptualize the world to have gods, Brahma, and Mara/Yama. Beyond that anyone can speculate what the historical Buddha’s position was and hypothesize that there was an even more original ‘pre-text-Buddhism’.

I am personally also sure though that suttas which include direct contact and conversations with gods are late fabrications. Their content is just too devotional or meant to subjugate the gods under the Buddha.


#3

The following articles by Mun-keat Choong may be relevant:

2009: “A comparison of the Pāli and Chinese versions of the Māra Saṃyutta, a collection of early Buddhist discourses on Māra, the Evil One”, The Indian International Journal of Buddhist Studies 10: 35-53.

2011: “A comparison of the Pāli and Chinese versions of the Devatā Saṃyutta and Devaputta Saṃyutta, collections of early Buddhist discourses on devatas “gods” and devaputras “sons of gods””, Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies 1: 60-88.

2012: “A comparison of the Pāli and Chinese versions of the Sakka Saṃyutta, a collection of early Buddhist discourses on “Śakra, ruler of the gods””, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 22 (3-4): 561-574.

2014: “A Comparison of the Pāli and Chinese Versions of the Brahmā Saṃyutta, a Collection of Early Buddhist Discourses on Brahmās, the Exalted Gods”, Buddhist Studies Review 31 (2): 179-194.

2017: “A comparison of the Chinese and Pāli Saṃyukta/Saṃyuttas on the Venerable Mahā-Maudgalyāyana (Mahā-Moggallāna)”, Buddhist Studies Review 34 (1): 67-84.


#4

There is a sutta where a layman asks the Buddha, ‘do devas exist?’ and the Buddha basically replies ‘yes’. I’ll try to find the reference later.

IMO, this sutta has been misunderstood by some (stating that the Buddha didn’t really reply and was evasive) because the way the Buddha replied. He basically said: ‘it is widely believed that devas exist but I don’t go by hearsay, I know from my own experience that they do.’


#5

It’s probably MN 100. See also Piya Tan’s paper discussing the topic


#6

Thanks everyone. Looks like good reading.

@Gabriel is that the correct title for Analyo’s paper? I see it’s the same title for Fiordalis


#7

Sorry, here’s the correct one (will correct it above too):
Analayo - The Buddha’s Fire Miracles


#8

Well done, that’s the one! :slight_smile:

But Master Gotama, do gods absolutely exist?”
“I’ve understood the existence of gods in terms of causes.”
“But Master Gotama, when asked ‘Do gods exist?’ why did you say that you have understood the existence of gods in terms of causes? If that’s the case, isn’t it a hollow lie?”
“When asked ‘Do gods exist’, whether you reply ‘Gods exist’ or ‘I’ve understood it in terms of causes’ a sensible person would come to the definite conclusion that gods exist.”
“But why didn’t you say that in the first place?”
“It’s widely agreed in the world that gods exist.”


#9

I think Sujato wisely translates here ‘absolutely exist’. MN 90 at least clarifies a similar question as meaning if gods exist without a cause (not if they exist at all). Maybe MN 100 confounded the two questions.


#10

Hi Gabriel, what do you mean by wise?
I’m not sure to understand the goal of adding this adverb here. I checked the Pali, it seems to be simply ‘Atthi devā’ everywhere… where does ‘absolutely’ come from and what is its purpose?

I checked Piya Tan’s paper, he does not seem to comment on the passage, only giving his translation, did I miss something?

Nice one, I never made the connection, I need to look into this passage and think about it, thanks.


#11

It’s surely not in the Pali. But the answer is as if asked “Are the gods self-existent?” And the Buddha says “No, they exist conditionally”.

It’s probably interesting that in Vedic literature the self-existence (svayaṃbhu) of gods was presupposed. So maybe the sutta question refers back to the Vedic attitude.


#12

People who are not very deep into samadhi or shamanic ways of changing consciousness don’t really have access to this realm of existence. It is like blind people speaking “colours does not exist!!!”.

The fact that someone doesn’t have perception tool to perceive something, doesn’t mean it does not exist.

As far as I know, buddhist way of achieving siddhis (and contacting devas/gods are one of them) are mostly based upon:

  1. developement of deep jhanas - especially higher jhanas and arupa jhanas. With very high standards for jhanas.
  2. kammic potential

For example Moggalana, one of greatest Buddha disciples had these things.

It is also importaint to note, that ancient India was very deep into shamanic practices, and yoga was intertvined with it. Even today Indian sadhus are constantly going and meditating high on hashish or stronger psychedelics. India is country that has abundance of naturally growing psychoactive plants that deeply change consciousness, probably the second after amazonian culture.

And these plants are giving experiences that people often describe as contacting spiritual beings, having altered states of consciousness, having profound insights into nature of cosmos etc. etc.
Just read trip reports from modern users of DMT. They’re very similar to the Vedic books and their content of brahmas, devas etc.
Also vedas have a lot of references to “Soma”, which induced states of divination.

But you won’t hear that in school or even at a university, or from most of “scholars” either.

I highly recoomend books of Stanislav Grof if someone is interested to intellectually explore this topic.

The canon is full of relation to devas, and no, they are not metaphors.
Even the first sermon of the Budda:

And when the Buddha rolled forth the Wheel of Dhamma, the earth gods raised the cry: “Near Benares, in the deer park at Isipatana, the Buddha has rolled forth the supreme Wheel of Dhamma. And that wheel cannot be rolled back by any ascetic or brahmin or god or Māra or Brahmā or by anyone in the world.”

Hearing the cry of the Earth Gods, the Gods of the Four Great Kings … the Gods of the Thirty-Three … the Gods of Yama … the Joyful Gods … the Gods Who Love to Create … the Gods Who Control the Creations of Others … the Gods of Brahmā’s Host raised the cry: “Near Benares, in the deer park at Isipatana, the Buddha has rolled forth the supreme Wheel of Dhamma. And that wheel cannot be rolled back by any ascetic or brahmin or god or Māra or Brahmā or by anyone in the world.”

And so at that moment, in that instant, the cry soared up to the Brahmā realm. And this galaxy shook and rocked and trembled. And an immeasurable, magnificent light appeared in the world, surpassing the glory of the gods.

So of course devas are EBT.
Also…

In time and place where shamanism and deep samadhi practice and yoga were practiced widely and deeply, it should not be surprising that it was “widely agreed”. In ancient greece it was also widely agreed. But when you get to understand that great eleusian mysteries were actually shamanic rituals (it is described in a book “Road to Eleusis”) it is not surprising. It was widely agreed in native america as well (again shamanic culture). To be honest, it was widely agreed everywhere except after christianisation of the world (and islamisation) and imposing montheistic views upon most of the world. (but still the angels took place of devas in christianity, they’re just not “gods” but “divine beings”). Also, very agressive secularisation and big focus on neurobiological - materialistic-reductionist view of the world contributes to that greatly.

I even know a lot of people who are a lot today into shamanism, and it those circles, it is widely accepted that gods and devas do exist.

It is just our modern western world that is cut for so long from religious experiences, thats why they say it does not exist. Medieval times, burning of the witches, condemning all practices that could actually lead to altered states of consciousness, imperialism, missionarism, secularisation, banning by law the shamanic tools of changing consciousness - it all contributed to this sad situation.

And as go for the buddhist circles, two more importaint points:

  1. Deep jhanas and arupa jhanas are very hard to achieve. Very rarely by non-monastics. Lay people are generally discouraged to develop siddhis.
  2. Monastics cannot speak to non-monastics about their meditative and spiritual attainments. So they won’t be going on around telling about devas, siddhis etc., because it could be seen as sharing spiritual attainments.

Thats why there is such situation of doubt about these things today vs accepting these things in the ancient times.

There is a lot of more information about this, but I think this is enough :wink:
I hope it is OK that I’ve shared this information, but since it is the truth in my opinion, I think it is totally in line with Buddhist teaching on right speech, to always speak the truth.


#13

But is this the same tradition of mental cultivation that Buddhism comes from? We don’t see a lot of soma or mushroom ingestion, afaik, in early Buddhist literature, for instance.


#14

It is absolutely not Buddhist mental cultivation. At least not theravadin, who knows whats going on in esotheric circles of tantra and vajrayana? I know first-hand that some bon-dzogchen teachers give permissions use such things, but it is not early buddhism and not even theravada.

But Buddha was teaching at times where such things, and other methods of mental cultivation were used. And it is topic oftentimes omited completely in discussions about devas. And I believe it has huge impact on understanding today skepticism vs ancient belief in gods, devas etc.

I believe that it was more “normal” that “other realms” exist, due to:

  • wide use of entheogens - they may lead among many things to experiences of contact with divine entities (I don’t state that these people always metaphysically state that they exist, but for sure subjectively experientally)
  • deep samadhi practice (jhanas born of concentation, like Buddha learned from Alara Kalama for example) are known to lead to some siddhis, but not final liberation. But contact with divine beings is one such siddhi.
  • and yoga in general (pranayama techniques for example can also evoke altered states of mind). Modern equvalent of it is holotropic breathing of Stanislav Grof. Reports from these experiences also mentions what appears to be experiences of contact deva-like beings).

So, it was more “normal” that “other realms” exist, because they’re realms of the mind that can be explored through these various methods that were used more openly and were less condemned in India in the times of the Buddha, than they are today in western society.

Of course they can be also explored through developement of mind through proper buddhist vipassana/jhana practice. Concentration born of wisdom. Such was origin of Buddha power to teach devas etc. Out of compassion he went to their realms to show them that they weren’t as free as they thought and to teach them dhamma. Example: MN49

I know that both jhanas and shamanic plant ingestions can lead some individuals to experience devas and siddhis. It was one of greatest research topics of my life. Jhanas and siddhis are related in pali canon itself. Research on entheogenic shamanism - a lot of books about it.

Of course jhanas are more safe and replicable once you get them, but we cannot dismiss that there are other possibilities that can lead to siddhis (of course discouraged by the Buddha, or not talked about), that were in cultural context of times when Buddha lived, and that were more accessible to less developed individuals. To get “deep” on shamanic path one does not need such deditation as developing deeper jhanas. But the path is much more dangerous. Still, it is normal that in shamanic circles, magical visions of the world, just as in ancient times, is considered “normal”, and materialistic-reductionism as crazy limitation. You can listen some testimonials on youtube of people who went through ayahuasca ceremonies. They state that world is mind-made and that there are other beings, heavenly and hellish realms etc.
Stanislav Grof has 5000 scientifically documented sessions with patients that did undergo psychedelic therapy with use of LSD. They are also mentioning meeting devas. Dependent on the culture they were risen in, they were hindu devas, christian angels etc. etc.

Since Buddhist circles are completely not into entheogens, and because of dominance of modern reductionist-materialist secularist paradigm, the skepticism about “devas” is widespread in modern buddhist circles.

And it is understandable, since in Buddhist ways of cultivation, it takes huge dedication to developement of jhanas to get to the level of siddhis, which I explained in detail in my previous post:

  1. Deep jhanas and arupa jhanas are very hard to achieve. Very rarely by non-monastics. Lay people are generally discouraged to develop siddhis. Monastic are not encouraged either, except for most importaint ones like recalling past lives and reaching final liberation.
  2. Monastics cannot speak to non-monastics about their meditative and spiritual attainments. So they won’t be going on around telling about devas, siddhis etc., because it could be seen as sharing spiritual attainments.

So it is very hard to convince such people. Especially since this subject is such a taboo. You cannot force the critics to get into jhanas or use another methods to see for themselves. But they can at least do some reserch and see that these things are possible - but they require certain techniques or developement of the mind to be able to perceive them.

I find their statements that it is just “cultural baggage” or “fairy tales” as totally ignorant and not willing to admit basic thing which “okay, perhaps I just didn’t developed my mind so much and not willing to try other methods”. If someone doesn’t have dedication to find out the truth, they could at least stop speaking with certainty about things they have no access to, which by very definition is accessible only through higher states of the mind.

Anyway I personally find that peculiar, that Buddha never, ever commented on soma and other things like that in his discourses, as conductive or unconductive/dangerous etc. We only have fifth precept, which translations differs. It is sometimes translated as avoiding intoxicants that leads to carelessness of the mind. Which really could and could not apply to some entheogens, but I suppose this is another topic.

Anyway I wanted to answer to the OP: yes, devas are EBT. And to explain why people are so skeptical today in relation to the ancient times, and that they’re not even doing intellectual research to back their claims, because a lot of these materials are free online.

When we do a comparative study between EBT and entheogenic cultures (which was one of my main research interest on my doctoral studies and still is), we can find a lot of interesting information that is otherwise lacking, especially in historical analysis of “spiritual scene” in India at the times of the Buddha.

Turth is, Buddhism without devas and all this higher mind stuff is just much more shallow. It is not core of buddhism as four noble truths and gradual letting go of craving and aversion, but it is not “culturas baggage” and “fairy tales” to be dismissed either. As far as I remember, Mogallana was praised for his skillful use of higher jhanas and siddhis. Buddha also used siddhis, for example to know the level of consciousness of people he met, to know what words to use to give best teaching according to the potential understanding of the listener.
Higher mind practice, when done on great foundation of sila, can be very good and it is clear from EBT.
Ajahn Brahm also was telling stories of Ajahn Chah generally reading minds to give awesome teachings to his students.

But well…


#15

@invo you’re research sounds quite interesting - you wrote a doctoral thesis on these topics? I’d be curious to hear more.

For the record, I never said I don’t believe in devas - just that many modern teachers are skeptical :upside_down_face:

I’m working on a short essay that critiques the alliance between mainstream American Buddhism and biomedical views of “mental illness.” Which touches on how convert Buddhists relate to non-normative states of consciousness, etc.

When Buddhism, or any culture for that matter, loses touch with the unseen world - or at least the possibility of it - it is a tremendous loss. Can Buddhism present alternative ways for people to integrate their visions, madness, etc.? These are my interests…

On a different note, I’ve been disappointed by the newly (re-)emergent field of psychedelic Buddhism. In theory, it’s an interesting cross-pollination, but I just haven’t been that impressed by the people leading the charge… It’s also bizarre to me that American Buddhists minimize the role of samadhi, banish devas, etc., but then look to drugs for that missing spark.

(BTW, I’ve moved this topic from Q&A to Discussion.)


#16

Wow, this is really interesting :wink: I’m rarely finding people who share these interests with me, you’re one of the few I must say.

First of all of course didn’t mean that you think that devas are superstition etc. :slight_smile: I was referring only to those who state that, which are many and loud. I used your quote only to show how unfair and silly these statements are in eyes of people who:

  1. Experienced these things first hand, through either of methods, especially without support of entheogens.
  2. Did enough research and have open mind to acknowledge that such beings are present in all cultures that were exposed to either entheogenic shamanism or development of higher mind through various yogic practices, early buddhist jhana/vipassana included. And that they are clearly EBT.

Not exactly. I’m writing Ph.D about meditation path in theravada buddhism. It is pretty vast project. I’m doing very careful study of what actually is buddhism meditation, what is its essence, and what are main points of “discussion” nowadays about various subjects related to it, like standards for jhana, what is enlighenment, relation between samatha and vipassana etc… I study what part of this discussions are really unsolvable opinions that simply differs among schools, and what can be “solved” through actual careful study of EBT in which some schools arguments simply don’t hold. But that is not all, because I’m doing mostly phenomenological approach. I got very inspired by works of Ajahn Brahm and Thanissaro Bhikkhu, who presented careful phenomenological descriptions of jhanic states in their meditation manuals (Ajahn Brahm - Mindfulness Bliss & Beyond and Thanissaro Bhikkhu - With Each and Every Breath). Right now, even much more authors and teachers share phenomenological descriptions of various meditative states and various insights. So I want to give reader a careful description of what actually is buddhist path of meditation, what people see, feel, go through etc., and not just bare terms like “jhana” “insight” etc. which are just abstract terms for them, I describe (just quoting various teachers) what this things actually are, so that a western intelligent person can get a feel that these things are real. It is a philosophical project of showing that buddhist meditation is actually answer to ancient philosophical search of truth and happiness and that it can be more or less shown by “real” actual phenomenological descriptions, rather than just abstract theory.

But along the way I was very interested in relation of enthegens and meditation practices (buddhist especially). I was even attending international conferences and speaking about this stuff. Actually I had a talk about exact thing you’re interested it. I was talking about use of psychedelics in cultures that accept “magical thinking” and in “skeptical modern society” and how it affects healing and integration processes.
It is totally the same situation with people who get really deep into realm of jhanas and siddhis, when things can get a little “crazy” and really profound.

Long story short, it has HUGE impact. Psychedelic/jhanic experiences gives you three choices eventaully:

  1. Either you accept their truths and you grow and evnetually embrace more broad view of reality and change according to it.
  2. Or you think you’re crazy and eventually because of that become crazy or being treated as such.
  3. You deny everything, but it is not really an option, because these things cannot be forgot and it could lead to psychological/spiritual problems.

So in societies, or subcultures that don’t accept that way of thinking, when people don’t have courage to embrace who they are, when they share their doubts and experiences they can be treated as crazy. And they can start to believe it, and things can get really problematic then. It is very importaint to either have courage to believe in that these states are showing something importaint, or be around people who shares this worldview.

I suppose monastic life is one such place, when monks generally accept these things and they surely know much more than they can tell us and they handle it. Also people naturally “change enviroment” when getting deeper into spirituality, to feel more accepted and be around people who also explore these things.

I wanted to write about relation of medtation and psychedelics at some point, but my promoter would never accept such topic. I was very often being treated with ostracism due to fact I’m researching “drugs”, because my research was showing that these things are not as bad as people think, but that entheogens are rather good when used in good circumstances, and not much people have courage to stand with that opinion (I would say facts); they risk their reputation. So I backed off and share this only when appropriate. I’m tired of being insulted and looking down upon for trying to help. I always thought that university and society stand for objective truth, but I learned it is rarely the case. Also, these things are really powerful and I have a belief: if it is someone’s path, it will come to him anyway. No need to pressure that. Actually pressuring that is extremely immoral. So, maybe it is better that this is the way it is… it is really not for me to judge.

As to role of buddhism in reintegrating visions, madness etc., I think it has biggest potential of all existing things in the world. Buddhist is actually cure even for psychedelic crisises. I’m sorry for getting here a little personal, but there is no research on that, so I have to refer to personal experience. I’m actually one such person, because my real buddhist practice started really deeply when I couldn’t otherwise integrate my psychedelic experiences. It gave me no choice but to embrace Buddha Dhamma, because Nibbana is the only thing that maintains balance between anihillation and eternalism, and on my psychedelic journey I’ve got extremely scared of both at some point. But this is all I will say publicly, since this forum is not to discuss private practice, but I can share more in private conversation. But I know the subject deeply. And genuine buddhist practice healed me and integrated stuff that no person or psychotherapy could. When my mind was very in bad shape I called main teacher of Polish vipassana sangha which I was officialy part of and his buddhist advice helpem a lot got me out of the trouble. Reading suttas and about buddhism gave a lot of relief and helped me integrate the problems and transform them into positives. It also shows how buddhist community is here to help when things go really deep into mind problems. Psychologists shrug their shoulders, while buddhist teachers advice helped. What inspired me even more is the fact that this teacher did not condemn me for my actions, did not have himself such particular experiences, but still he known what to do regarding my meditation practice to integrate it. Such is the depth of understanding of mind of the Buddha and his followers. It also shown me that no matter how what schools we’re from, when things get tough we’re all “buddhist community” to help each other :slight_smile: And that Buddha Dhamma is timelessly soothing to those who need and listen to it :anjal: :dharmawheel:

I also have a friend who had deep psychedelic crisis as well. And I actually helped her get out of it through learning about buddhist philosophy and buddist meditation, just exactly same things that helped me. Nothing else did help her aswell. She’s also dedicated buddhist practitioner right now, going on retreats, meditating etc.

I also know people who have mild psychoses and integrating that through buddhist practice. As Ajahn Brahm says, never see a “psychotic person” but “a person who has psychotic episode”. Also sometimes what some people reffer as to “being psychotic” is actually siddhi. It can be sometimes tricky to distinguish between the two, when no one knows what these things are and the norm is that “every another state of mind is crazy”. I have a friend who “sees energy”, and she thought that maybe she’s crazy until she realised it is normal at certain stage of mind developement, through introducing her to buddhist dhamma. It is normal that at certain stage of samadhi, the mind is sharp enough to perceive subtler levels of reality. And when people change perception, they start to cope and intergrate, and instead of “crazy”, their life become richer.

In my opinion it is not the problem of entheogens, but it is problem of people. I don’t know a single modern buddhist movement outside of monasticism and lay people around monastics that is doing very well, but that’s just my opinion. Very few people have such dedication and talent to be in charge of such projects. And most of those who are, they mostly choose to ordain.

From what you describe and in relation to my knowledge, what they are doing is simply unskillful.

If entheogens could be merged with buddhist practice, then only as a support, and never as a “main thing”. It should never, ever be more importaint than developing classic buddhist values and meditative skills. Thats most likely why they fail. And people should learn when to hang of the phone so to speak, and once they get them on the path, stop relying on the supports, but start to rely on themselves and the dhamma.

Great article about it from Ajahn Sucitto:

I would never call entheogens “drugs”. They are sacred plants, such they are called by their respective cultures. It is our western society made “drugs” of these things, using them in circumstances that shamanic cultures would not do and not approve of. From perspective of shamanism, this is simply sacreligious, oftentimes stupid, and sometimes dangerous to use them like “drugs”.

It is same as with a knife. In the kitchen it is good. In a hand of a murderer it is horrible. It is not the knife that is evil, it is the one who uses it wrongly.

But getting that to poeple is much harder than buddhism, so I gave up mostly. But they didn’t kick me out from my university even thou I was openly speaking about it so it’s not that bad.

btw. we can move this discussion to private if it offends anyone or violate the rules somehow. Also mods please feel free to delete any sections if you feel that something I’ve wrote are against the rules or customs of the forum. :slight_smile: Espiecially since I went slightly off-topic and into very taboo stuff.

@sgns aside from that, I could still tell you much more details in a private conversation. :slight_smile: I think we share very much the same interest of relation of “madness”/visions coping and buddhist practice, but many details relates to things that sharing publicly would be against this forum custom to don’t discuss private practice (which I think is highly commendable and I respect that) :anjal:


#17

Very interesting stuff Invo :slight_smile:

You are right though, to think about appropriateness. I have no problem with the way you are discussing these issues, but do think that perhaps if you are going to continue along the ‘mind altering substances’ path, then it would be best to split the topic, so to keep it on target for the OP. Also have a look at simmilar topics using the search function. I remember this stuff (chemical stimulus of the mind) being discussed a few times - you may find some interesting resources.

Cheers :slight_smile:


#18

I’m glad you find that interesting Viveka :slight_smile:

Yeah I think we should stick to the main topic, and either split the madness/entheogenic coping relation to buddhism to another topic, or continue in private conversation with sgns.

I don’t mind both options :slight_smile:

But lets keep this topic to EBT perspective on devas and siddhis and all the stuff that relates to that. I’m sorry for going off topic, but due to questions asked I could not resist :smiley: My first two posts I believe are on topic thou :slight_smile:

Interesting. I’m more interested in what forum users have to say about that more than actual resources, and gonna check this out :smiley: I’m quite interested in how buddhist circles are seeing these things, so thanks for pointing that out :slight_smile: The search button is always a good idea :wink: :anjal:


#19

@Invo I’ve just sent you a PM so we might continue extracurricular discussions :slight_smile: