To reconcile the devas, realms, siddhis

*This post is intended to draw insight and create discussion. I don’t wish to offend anyone
*I’ll use ‘devas’ as a blanket term for supernatural beings. I think the points remain clear enough to evade the redundancy of spelling out each being.

Hello, I’d like to share some observations of my own and that I have made of others, and hopefully receive some feedback. The point of this post is to gain insight into the credence of “supernatural” phenomena, especially in the context of those who are interested in Buddhism. I’ll base the assertions within this post off of what seems to be commonly perceived among “Westerners” from observations that seem to be prevalent in online forums.

It seems that many Westerners are attracted to Buddhism due to their idea of it having an empirical nature. Even the abstract concepts, such as not-self, impermanence, and dependent origination, which cannot be seen directly, are readily accepted. I think the empirical nature of these phenomena make them digestable by an open-minded audience.

Of the Buddha’s teachings, a point which seems to draw much controversy among Westerners is the idea of the “supernatural”, especially in the sense of devas and realms. To add to this complexity, it would seem that even seasoned practitioners do not fully agree on this point.

One argument about the devas and realms is that they are simply metaphors. A Westerner might understand the deva realm as a place that offers sensual delights with little stress. The Westerner might imagine such a place, also realizing that it is simply a metaphor which alludes to this state of mind. Like, a Westerner might interpret being reborn as an animal as being a metaphor for someone who has lost their mindfulness and simply reacts.

Another argument is that the devas are real, and live in multiple realms, as with with other non-human beings and other realms. Westerners are told to place blind faith in the literal existence of these beings. This seems similar to the blind faith required by other beliefs. Building beyond this, the same argument is sometimes packaged with a condition, that we’ll understand that they are real someday, just not today.

Yet another argument which I’ve come across is that the devas and realms are to be taken as literally as everything that exists in the human realm – that is to say, as real as we are, in the relative sense, is as real as the devas and realms are in the relative sense. In the ultimate sense, neither really exist. It seems that this argument would imply that the devas and realms exist only within our imaginations, and are real only in that sense.

The last argument I’ll mention is the disregard of devas. This encompasses the previous arguments. Devas are described as being irrelevant to the path. This point differs from the idea that we simply can’t know the answer to something (in general) – it asserts that the devas either do exist literally or are metaphors, but that we don’t know yet. This point still leads the learner to the expectation that they will someday understand that the devas are either one thing or the other thing. It would seem that knowing them as either metaphors or as literal is important since this theme recurs within the Pali Canon.

If someone asks about the existence of devas and realms, how would the question best be answered?

The answer according to the Buddha is: Yes, the devas and realms, they do exist.

You can see such direct and explicit answer in MN 90 Kaṇṇakatthalasutta and also in MN 100 Saṅgāravasutta

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‘Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.’ - There are not only ‘yes’ and ‘no’, there is also ‘don’t know’.

Aren’t these stated to be apparent in this very life, yet still difficult to see, but not impossible.

For example, feeling - many people might be aware of some feeling but not other, or craving - if one gets addicted to something and attempts to abstain, one might experience this craving and so on.

Christianity, among “Westerners”, too teaches about heavens, angles, and people who went to heaven. If one did not believe in life after death, then what would be the point of spiritual life?

The definition of right view is:

‘There is meaning in giving, sacrifice, and offerings. There are fruits and results of good and bad deeds. There is an afterlife. There are such things as mother and father, and beings that are reborn spontaneously. And there are ascetics and brahmins who are rightly comported and rightly practiced, and who describe the afterlife after realizing it with their own insight.’

The suttas states that recollecting devas can lead to:

At any time when a disciple of the noble ones is recollecting the faith, virtue, learning, generosity, and discernment found both in himself and the devas, his mind is not overcome with passion, not overcome with aversion, not overcome with delusion. His mind heads straight, based on the [qualities of the] devas. And when the mind is headed straight, the disciple of the noble ones gains a sense of the goal, gains a sense of the Dhamma, gains joy connected with the Dhamma. In one who is joyful, rapture arises. In one who is rapturous, the body grows calm. One whose body is calmed experiences ease. In one at ease, the mind becomes concentrated.

In MN76 there are mentioned other views that negate the spiritual life and answers to how suttas respond to them.

Hello and thanks for the reply. I’d like to expound on a point made in the original post as to hopefully gain further insight. It seems that there are multiple parts of Buddhism which allow us to realize that we simply don’t know an answer to something. I think that the boundary is different between ‘simply not knowing’ and disregarding mentions made within the canon. Simply not knowing something is often in the context of something which isn’t discussed in the canon, and often knowingly disregarded in light of being irrelevant to the path. In the context of devas, it would seem that the situation is different as they are acknowledged and, in one manner or another, valid within the suttas. Would this mean that other recurring topics within the suttas could be set aside?

Hello and thanks for the reply. I should have explained this better in the post as I intended this in the literal sense. We might come to its direct realization, in the sense that we can realize the number 10, but we’ll see 10 oranges or the actual numeral 10, yet not the abstract concept itself.

I think that this addresses a different point than that mentioned in the post, please correct me if I am mistaken.

I was replying to the point:

I believe many “Westerners”, such as those who are Christians have beliefs on the supernatural, devas - angles, heaven - realms.

The second point I mentioned is the definition of right view, which states that there is afterlife - in other words there is no place for controversy. If one were to doubt about devas, afterlife, one would doubt about right view.

I believe your question was how to answer to such problem, and the answer to a “Westerner” could point to belief on angles, heaven among other “Westerners” in Christianity to show them how common it is and then also to present that right view contains such beliefs.

The problem of ignorance is not only that we do not know something, but also that we are not aware of the fact that we do not know, or that we are aware of the fact that we do not know, but we do not accept that fact. The fact that the person is aware of his lack of knowledge and accepts that fact is a big and very important step in eliminating delusion and ignorance, in developing an understanding of the problem, of dukkha. If a person doesn’t know that they don’t know, they simply wouldn’t seek knowledge and understanding.

It is imperative to be honest and open with oneself about oneself. This means that it is very important to distinguish between beliefs and actual knowledge, to know and understand their origin and foundation.

The teaching is about arriving at the truth, visible and verifiable here and now, personally. There is no place here for any kind of dishonesty, trickery or self-deception - all of which are, by definition, obstacles and opposed to the truth.

There will always be something you don’t know or can’t check for yourself. This means that, especially in the beginning, you have to rely on trust. But that doesn’t mean that you lose sight of the fact that you don’t know this or that for yourself and that you take it on trust.

So if there is trust in the suttas, then there is no need to put these subjects aside, or to blindly believe in their trustworthiness, or to deny them. Just admit to yourself that you don’t know, and take them into consideration, because these subjects are mentioned and discussed in the suttas that you want to trust.

There is nothing that can be achieved on the path, or even the path itself, by blind faith, by chance - only by acquiring correct knowledge and developing correct understanding. Faith here is really trust.

Do you have faith?

My personal interpretation of meditation masters being free to fly, pass through walls, traverse terrains, etc, are all compatible with my lucid meditation / dream experiences. To me, that’s a more tangible interpretation than actual superhuman powers that are now lost to us. Though a lot of fundamental believers actually hold these passages to be literal.

As for dialogues with devas and other supernatural beings, again, a more sensible approach is understanding them as a function of deep meditation practices / visions. Doesn’t mean they’re not real, in fact, mind-originated objects are just as real, and various phenomena can inflict the mind with certain recurring themes. An easiest example is ghosts. Departed ones leave a lasting imprint on our mind and as such exist and have real life consequences. Or, to understand devas / other supernatural beings, think about the fictional heroes we have. Darth Vader certainly exists, and a lot of people (not least George Lucas) have vivid conversations with them. Where does Darth Vader come from? Ask any writer where they hear or draw their characters from and they answer I don’t know.

Another important perspective about devas is how Buddhist perspective builds up on Vedic culture. Devas are seen as powerful, real entities that people pray to - this is all turned upside down with Devas bowing down to Buddha’s wisdom. My takeaway drom this is Whatever beings, states, realms you can conjure up, you can’t describe one outside of the Dhamma offered by Buddha.

Likewise, descriptions of Mara (literally “The Death”, the tempting figure) underline the understanding that Temptations are not self. Considering and understanding temptation, fear, dread, etc. all as “not-mine”, we can detach from said temptations easier. It’s much harder to let go off addictions when the problem is formulated as “I want to drink!” but “There’s temptation to drink”, the second view, correct view, conquers temptations.

As for rebirth, it’s a complicated subject, one has to see through past lives to understand it completely. I struggled to make sense of it the most, but seeing Buddha not fool me once, I spent a lot of time meditating on it, understanding the subject for myself, seeing the wheel of rebirth. That’s something you need to see for yourself to understand.

But even then, Buddha admits that belief in rebirth is tricky, and you can lead a holy life without a belief in rebirth. So again, there’s the recurring theme of an oppressive idea turned upside down in Buddhism - If there’s no rebirth, then skeptical mind doesn’t need to worry about that. If there’s a rebirth, you’re going to a good place by having good intentions. Buddha literally says that.

It doesn’t mean one needs to understand all pleasure heavens and names of all the various Devas or whatever else to achieve enlightenment. Never in the suttas do devas teach Buddha something, they (sometimes fear, but generally) respect him greatly, and they all bow down to Dhamma.

My takeaway from this is not “Believe in Devas, they are real, seeing them is a crucial path to Enlightenment!” but more that “If you feel an alien presence within you, things haunting your visions, stick to the Dhamma, let go off your fears and anxiety. Whatever beings there are, none can be above the Dhamma.”

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This seems more or less inline with what I was saying the other day, but that you seemingly objected to. Change of heart? As for faith, it requires uncertainty doesn’t it. :pray:

Exactly this. When I explain to monks the vast range of Christian beliefs that Westerners hold it blows their mind. Then I tell them that most large newspapers have an astrology section and their jaw hits the floor. And when I explain that in the US, most medium to large size towns will have a psychic shop, they think I’m making it all up or have lost my mind.

Don’t forget that the two most rapidly growing forms of Christianity in the West are Mormonism (where you are reborn as a god with your own planet) and Pentacostalism (where you can speak in tongues and talk to God, etc.).

I think the conceit here is that the “Westerners” this thread is concerned about are those who think those beliefs of the other “Westerners” are for the rubes and that they are a more sophisticated kind of “Westerner” who doesn’t dabble in such extra-empirical ideas except for multi-dimensions, multiverses, whether we’re all living in a simulation, P vs NP, the coming AI singularity and how many years out it is, whether the ABC conjecture has been solved etc, etc. :pray:


I think you are right and I also think that it is a false premise to have the conversation under.

Because there is a wide range of “Westerner” believe between a complete materialist and someone who wears magic underware. And the whole premise rests on the notion that people are either one or the other. They aren’t.

(Not to mention that there are materialists outside of the West. In fact, they existed in Jambudipa in the time of the Buddha.)

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I don’t know beyond the scope of the questions and answers I have come across, but the ones that I reference are those who have been conditioned to be critical of blind faith and the supernatural. I put Westerners in quotes because that term seems to be the label for most people approaching Buddhism from the outside with a focus on the things I mentioned.

Thank you for sharing this

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I think it would be better if you used more accurate terms. If you are writing about skeptics or materialists, better to just call them that.

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I should have expounded about “Westerners”; I see how ambiguous this is now. “Westerners” went in quotes as it seems to be the term that is thrown around for beginners who are coming to the dhamma with a skeptical view, even if, upon further look, they are not from the West. Instead of Westerners, I think that it would have been more fruitful to say this; people who are coming from different backgrounds that required faith who are interested in Buddhism. These people, if generalized, seem to be skeptical of faith-based practices and seem to seek rational, logical, or at least empirical practices. I think that many who share this view and/or background can digest most of the concepts that Buddhism offers at some level, short of Buddhist cosmology. I would argue that Buddhist cosmology in its literal form (as a place which really exists) ventures into an area that is difficult for many to come to terms with rationally, logically, or even empirically, and many of the same arguments used against that which they have left would seemingly also be able to be applied to the cosmology.

As mentioned before, I don’t mean to ruffle anyone’s feathers. This is my humble observation about a point which seems to be a hurdle for those coming to Buddhism from different backgrounds. If nothing else, I’d like to be able to give a reasonable answer to others who might question me on the topic of cosmology.

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Moving on from “westerners”…

I’d note there is quite a big difference between people who are not easily convinced and require verification to enlist a supposition as “known” versus those who maintain a conceit that what they have not directly verified is therefore false or deserves ridicule or that others believe it only because they are gullible. Often times you’ll find people of the latter bent are arrogant and think highly of themselves where this conceit is nothing more than a way for their egos to lord over the simpler masses. :pray:

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I wrote a long answer to reply to your previous post, and only saw this comment now. I agree, that would have been a better choice

Absolutely not.

There is uncertainty about some of the mostly secondary issues within the teaching, and then there is the claim that the teaching is essentially lost forever. If from the start there is a conviction that the doctrine is lost, then there is no point in even beginning to discuss faith or trust in that doctrine.