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Dharma Energy

Presented to the members of the Riverview Dharma Centre on Saturday, April 29, 2017


The Philosophical Idea of Energy

In the Western philosophical tradition “energy” was originally an Aristotelian term denoting “actuality” or “existence in actuality.” More broadly, energy is defined in the physical sciences as the ability to do work. Energy exists in two states, kinetic and potential, both of which are real. Thus, energy is one of the universals of science, inherent in all physical systems. In general, it refers to activity or power of action.

In Pali, the English word “energy” is often used to translate viriya, defined by Tamilcube as “vigour, energy, effort, strength.” This word appears frequently all through the Pali Canon, along with such close synonyms as “power,” “strength,” “effectiveness” (upaya), “fire” (teja), “zest,” “ardor,” etc. (see Appendix). According to PED, it is derived from vira, cognate with Latin vir, virtus, “virtue,” from Vedic Sanskrit, meaning, “man, hero, chief,” as well as “people, humanity,” much like the English word “man.” Similarly, the Pali vira means “manly, mighty, heroic; a hero,” even “divine.” The Majjhima commentary states that the higher stages of arhantship are produced by “manly strength.” Viriya refers to “the state of a strong man,” i.e., vigour, energy, effort, exertion. In Sanskrit, it is virya,seminal energy, strength, power,” also translated as “courageous engagement” by Peter Harvey in his Introduction to Buddhism. The Tao Te Ching has a similar concept, Te, the complement of Tao, often translated into English as “virtue,” which comes from the same Indo-European root as vira, and implies the same connotation of manliness that underlies the classical conception of virtue. Sometimes it is translated as “character.”

The Indian View of Male Sexuality

Already it is clear from the foregoing that there is a special and specific association between the concept of virtue and male sexual energy, also called bindu in Indian literature (the Sanskrit word bindu also occurs in the Pali, where it means a ‘drop, spot, or cipher’; cf. bija and oja). Male sexuality played a significant role in early Buddhism in that it became the focus of monasticism, enshrined in the first training rule of the Vinaya, the prohibition of sexual intercourse. [1]

In his study of images of masculinity, sex, and the body in Indian Buddhism, A Bull of a Man (2009), author John Powers discusses the traditional Indian view of male sexuality. Powers makes it clear that in Indian tradition, including Buddhism, sexual and spiritual energy are cognate concepts. Thus, the Buddha is simultaneously a supreme spiritual master and a virile ksatriya warrior, handsome, with large quantities of semen and saliva and strong sexual desire. Therefore, the prohibition of sexual intercourse is not a prohibition of sexuality as such but rather of its profanation. Many of the Buddhist monastics are represented as extremely virile and attractive young men (the Pali Canon mentions young men frequently, implying that young men were particularly attracted to the Buddhadharma) who were eagerly sought after by women in charnel grounds and elsewhere (Powers, Bull of a Man, p. 277 n. 13). The Buddha himself is represented as so handsome and charismatic that women were overcome by desire or actually fainted in his presence. Sariputta was initially attracted to the Buddhasangha by the “surpassing beauty” of Upasena, a Buddhist monk (ibid, p. 154). Sariputta subsequently became the “monastic partner” of Maudgalyayana, who were inseparable for the rest of their lives, dying two weeks apart.[2] Sariputta became renowned as the monk foremost in wisdom, and Maudgalyayana as the monk foremost in psychic powers.

Powers writes,

In ancient India, semen was associated with the energy of life, and men who recklessly shed their seed were said to become physically diminished.[3] Excessive ejaculation leads to various morbidities and premature death. By contrast, the heroic ascetic who retains his seed is the most manly and virile of men and enjoys robust health, tremendous physical energy, and mental alertness, and he also develops supernatural powers (siddhi). Those who practice celibacy and other acts of austerity accumulate an energy called tapas, which literally means ‘heat.’ Sages who remain chaste for long periods and who combine this with advanced levels of meditation can even challenge the gods in terms of power and wisdom. (ibid, p. 79)

Nanamoli and Bodhi’s translation of the Majjhima Nikaya makes this association with virility clear: “For a faithful disciple who is intent in fathoming the Teacher’s Dispensation it is proper that he conduct himself thus: ‘Willingly, let only my skin, sinews, and bones remain, and let the flesh and blood dry up on my body, but my energy shall not be realized as long as I have not attained what can be attained by manly strength, manly energy, and manly persistence” (MN 70:27; cf. SN 12:22, 21:3, AN II:5(5)).[5] These are the same words used in the vow that the Bodhisattva took at the foot of the Bodhi tree prior to his Enlightenment (Ja 171, 24-27).

As with the prohibition of eating after noon, which was originally an Ayurvedic practice to optimize health, based on the waxing of the agni, the digestive fire, the Buddhist prohibition of sexual intercourse has complex cultural resonances. In traditional Indian belief, as in the Hellenic view, the female principle is identified with the somatic, physical polarity of existence, whereas the male is identified with the psychic, spiritual polarity, in a vertical hierarchy of value. Powers writes, “Buddhists, like other religious groups of the time, viewed the male body as naturally more conducive to self-control than the female body was. Females are depicted as constantly oozing fluids and as prone to emotional instability, while men are physically stronger, more controlled, and less subject to the vagaries of emotion” (ibid, p. 110). Thus, male celibacy (or seminal retention) is not actually anti-sexual, but anti-somatic. The Vinaya amply refutes the notion that monastics were actually asexual. Monastics must be celibate, but they must also be sexually unimpaired (ibid, pp. 84, 85). We find this doctrine, as well as its associated problems and difficulties, in Catholicism and Mormonism too. Thus, “the sage becomes more potent and more desirable as a result of avoiding sex” (ibid, p. 77). In order to understand the Buddhist view we must avoid projecting Judaeo-Christian notions of shame and guilt onto Buddhism, the sexual frankness of the original writings of which have offended more than one translator. By his own admission, the Buddha indulged extensively in sexual intercourse while a bodhisattva in his final rebirth. According to the accepted account, the Buddha engaged in sexual intercourse right up until his 29th year, merely six years before his Enlightenment. Powers explicitly recognizes “more and better sex” as a goal of spiritual practice (ibid, p. 99).

In the myth of Chandra, the god of the moon, which is also a symbol of dharma in Buddhism and of soma in Hinduism, is associated with the uposatha observance. Soma, the ritual beverage of the Vedic sacrifice, and the drink of the gods, is also associated with semen. The consumption of soma confers immortality and is said to be able to restore vitality lost due to excessive sexual activity. Its silver-white colour identifies it as a lunar substance (ibid, p. 79). Semen was also regarded as medicinal. Says Powers, “Indian medical lore holds that semen is produced by a process of refinement of the elements comprising food and that semen pervades the tissues of the entire body. … It is also ‘a formative principle in all bodies in the universe.’ … Semen is the source of physical vitality (in some sources menstrual blood is the female equivalent). Buddhaghosa differentiates among various types of semen and rates their relative quality” (ibid, p. 128). Powers writes that “men who practice self-control can retain their semen and thus acquire power” (ibid, p. 279 n. 62). These ideas are developed in the last great Buddhist tantra, the Kalachakra, circa 966 CE, but are clearly archaic in origin.

The Concept of Energy in the Pali Canon

Energy, in its three phases of arousal, endeavour, and exertion (SN 46:2(2)(ii)), is referred to frequently all through the Pali Canon in stock lists, including the Four Bases of Power, the Five Faculties or Powers, the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, the Eight Causes and Conditions of Wisdom, the Noble Eightfold Path, and the Ten Perfections (see Fundamental View). The Buddha says that he does not know of anything that so causes unarisen wholesome qualities to arise and arisen unwholesome qualities to decline as energy (AN I:61(1)). The Buddha says that the enlightenment factor of energy is both physical and mental (SN 46:52(2).ii). It is “nourished” by frequent and careful attention to the elements of arousal, endeavour, and exertion (SN 46:2(2).ii). Bodhi comments that these three elements refer to the initial and intermediate phases of the development of energy, culminating in “full intensity.” The phallic connotation is obvious. The Buddha says that energy is aroused, developed, and fulfilled by faith (SN 48:50(10) and discriminating the dharma with wisdom (SN 46:3(3), 54:13(3).ii), leading to mindfulness, concentration, wisdom, faith, and rapture (SN 48:50(10). Alternatively, he warns that arousing energy “in a badly expounded Dhamma and discipline dwells in suffering” (AN I:324(9)). Energy is aroused “for the attainment of the as-yet-unattained, for the achievement of the as-yet-unachieved, for the realization of the as-yet-unrealized” (AN IV:80(10)).

Energy appears in the Suttavibhanga as the first cause leading to jhana, in the practice referred to throughout the Vinaya by the stock phrase “putting forth (arousing) energy.”

In the Anguttara Nikaya, we encounter “the power of energy” as a synonym for the arousal of energy:

One generates desire to abandon those qualities that are unwholesome and reckoned as unwholesome; those that are blamable and reckoned as blamable; those that are dark and reckoned as dark; those that should not be cultivated and are reckoned as not to be cultivated; those that are unworthy of the noble ones and reckoned as unworthy of the noble ones. One makes an effort, arouses energy, applies one’s mind, and strives for this. One generates desire to obtain all those qualities that are wholesome and reckoned as wholesome; those that are blameless and reckoned as blameless; those that are bright and reckoned as bright; those that should be cultivated and are reckoned as to be cultivated; those that are worthy of the noble ones and reckoned as worthy of the noble ones. One who makes an effort, arouses energy, applies one’s mind, and strives for this. This is called the power of energy.

Elsewhere, “putting forth energy” appears as the culmination of a dharma talk. In the Mahavagga we have something approximating to an instruction in “putting forth energy,” in the form of the story of Sona Kolivisa, who received ordination and stayed in the Cool Grove. Through this story, we also begin to understand the intensity of the energy that is “aroused” by the Buddha and his followers. While he was pacing up and down, i.e., practising walking meditation, Sona’s body put out so much energy that “his feet broke.” As a result, the pathway became covered with blood. Presumably, this means that he cut his feet from so much walking barefoot. Sona began to consider returning to the life of a householder. The Buddha came, saw the blood and asked the monastics about it. Rather than condoning such extreme effort, the Buddha went to Sona, and through the famous metaphor of the lute, he taught Sona how to regulate his psychosomatic energy.

 What do you think about this, Sona? Were you clever at the lute’s stringed music as when formerly you were a householder? When the strings of your lute were too taught, was your lute at that time tuneful and fit for playing? When the strings of your lute were too slack, was your lute at that time tuneful and fit for playing? When the strings of your lute were neither too taught nor too slack, but were keyed to an even pitch was your lute at that time tuneful and fit for playing? Even so, Sona, does too much output of energy conduce to restlessness, does too feeble energy conduce to slothfulness. Therefore do you, Sona, determine upon evenness in energy and pierce the evenness of the faculties and reflect upon it.

Energy that is too slack or too lax leads to lassitude or laziness, whereas energy that is too tense or forceful leads to restlessness. Thus, the Buddha teaches the middle way between extremes, energetic balance, and evenness of the spiritual faculties as a basis for concentration. Because of the practice of “evenness in energy” Sona, “pierced the evenness of the faculties” [?], realized the supreme goal of the path by direct knowledge,  and achieved nirvana (see also SN 51:20(10)(ii), AN VI:55(1)).

lgshivasealTeja means ‘heat, radiance, glory, power,’ and is thus a near synonym of viriya. In the Majjhima Nikaya (43:22), “heat” and vitality are equated, standing in the same relationship to each other as radiance to flame. The “condition of heat” (tejodhatu) is referred to all through the Vinaya as an advanced spiritual attainment. This attainment is attributed to two monastics, Dabba the Mallian and Sagata, who was the Buddha’s personal attendant (thus dating the story to the first twenty years of the Buddha’s career, before Ananda became his personal attendant) and “chief of those good at the heat condition.” The story of Sagata is of particular interest because it has him using his “heat condition” to repel the “heat” of a hostile naga. It is repeated in somewhat expanded form of the Buddha himself, where he is called Angirasa (‘the Resplendent One’). One suspects that the association of the teja with a serpent is not arbitrary, since the Indian tradition describes a serpent-power (kundalini, ‘coiled one’) that is more than analogous to the concept of psychic heat, which also figures prominently in the Tibetan tradition. Kundalini awakening is a real physical syndrome that has been described by Dr. Lee Sannella in his book, The Kundalini Experience. If one looks closely at the oldest Indian representation of a cross-legged yogi, the so-called Pashupati seal of Indus Valley Civilization (c 2350-2000 BCE), the figure clearly exhibits an erect phallus! Here we begin to see clearly that the Buddhist concept of “energy” has some unusual characteristics and that any identification with “vigour” or similar such abstractions is simplistic at best. The Jungian notion of libido may be very close to the Buddhist conception. In the story of the naga serpent, the equation of heat and psychic power is explicit: “Truly the great recluse is of great psychic power, of great majesty, in that he can master by heat the heat of the fierce serpent king who has psychic power and is a terribly venomous snake.” The description suggests the visionary phenomena of psychedelic experience: “Then at the end of that night the serpent’s flames became extinguished but the multicoloured flames of him of psychic power remained, and multicoloured flames, dark green, then red, crimson, yellow and crystal-coloured were on Angirasa’s body.”

The supreme example of the power of energy appears in the Book of the Great Decease (Mahaparinibbana). The Buddha, knowing that his time was near, took Ananda to Capala Shrine (MN 16:3.1) and gave him a teaching called the Four Roads to Power (iddhipada). This practice is associated with the brahma Sanat Kumara (Pali Sanankumar). The Four Roads to Power involve the concentration of intention, energy, consciousness, and investigation by an effort of will (MN 18.22, 26:28). The Buddha tells Ananda that by this practice, the Buddha might live out “his age,” the meaning of which is ambiguous but may refer to the human lifespan of a hundred years or a historical epoch of millions of years, but Ananda, always a bit slow despite his phenomenal memory, did not beg the Buddha to live on before the Buddha declares his intention to die in three months. Too late, Ananda asks the Buddha to live on after he renounces the “force of life” (MN 16:3.1, 3.38), but a Buddha’s word is absolute and cannot be reversed. “Conscious dying” is of course a feature of Tibetan Lamaism and is widely attested.

MN 16:26 identifies five shackles in the heart: sensual pleasures, body, form, eating and sleeping, and theism. When these are overcome, the monastic develops the basis for spiritual power consisting of concentration due to zeal, energy, purity of mind, investigation, and enthusiasm.

The Buddha says that the “energy enlightenment factor” is aroused in one who develops the “investigation of states” enlightenment factor, which arises as result of mindfulness of the body, feelings, mind and mind objects (the Four Foundations of Mindfulness) (MN 118:32). From this aroused energy, “unworldly rapture” arises. Rapture develops into tranquility. Tranquility develops concentration. Concentration develops equanimity.

Right Effort, the sixth stage of the Noble Eightfold Path, is divided into the Four Right Exertions: restraint, abandonment, cultivation, preservation,[4] in which the faculty of energy is seen (SN 48:8(8)), associated with strength, firmness, and not shirking (9((9)). According to the Devatasamyutta, energy clears the noble path by dispelling drowsinesss, lethargy, laziness, discontent, and torpor. Bodhi comments that ”The clearing of the path comes about when one expels the mental corruptions by means of the path itself, with the energy (viriya) conascent with the path.” The Sagathavagga says that energy overcomes suffering and associates it with initiative, toil, struggle, and striving “for the attainment of the as-yet-unattained, for the achievement of the as-yet- unachieved, for the realization of the as-yet-unrealized.” The Nidanavagga alludes to the possibility of using “spiritual power” or energy to teleport [sic] from one distant location to another.

In the Mahavagga the Buddha reveals a practice that he developed as a Bodhisattva, prior to his enlightenment, which he calls the Four Bases of Spiritual Power:

It occurred to me: ‘Here, a bhikkhu develops the basis for spiritual power that possesses concentration due to [desire, energy, mind, and investigation] and volitional formations of striving, thinking: ‘Thus my [desire, energy, mind, and investigation] will be neither too slack nor too tense [recalling the metaphor of the lute that we have discussed]; and it will be neither constricted internally nor distracted externally.’ And he dwells perceiving after and before: ‘As before, so after; as after, so before; as below, so above; as above, so below; as by day, so at night; as at night, so by day.’ Thus, with a mind that is open and unenveloped, he develops the mind imbued with luminosity. (SN 51:11(1))

Internal constriction refers to sloth and torpor, whereas external distraction refers to disturbance because of “the five cords of sensual pleasure,” i.e., pleasure in the objects of the five physical senses. Bodhi suggests that the phrase “’as before, so after as after, so before’ means maintaining consistency in the practice of meditation.” According to the text, “as below, so above; as above, so below” refers to the analysis of the body as consisting of numerous taints: “There are in this body head-hairs, body-hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone-marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, intestines, mesentery, contents of the stomach, excrement, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, seat, fat, tears, grease, saliva, snot, fluid of the joints, urine” (SN 51:20(10).i). “As by day, so at night; as at night, so by day” means that the practice is practised all the time. According to the commentary, “developing the mind imbued with luminosity” means that one perceives an internal mental or psychic illumination with the same intensity and vividness that one perceives the light of the sun. Thus, “enlightenment” is not a metaphor but a real psychosomatic experience.

Energy is achieved by cultivating indefatigability on striving: “Willingly, let only my skin, sinews, and bones remain, and let the flesh and blood dry up in my body, but I will not relax my energy so long as I have not attained what can be attained by manly strength, energy, and exertion” (AN II: 5(5)).[5]

The Buddha repeats this instruction for desire, energy, mind, and investigation. This is of course an elaboration of the Four Roads to Power that we encountered in the Majjhima Nikaya. This exercise leads directly to the development of “the various kinds of spiritual power,” referring to siddhis, including self-multiplication; invisibility; the ability to pass through matter; weightlessness; levitation; the ability to explore other worlds, both astronomical and transcendent; clairaudience; telepathy; memory of past lives; and direct clairvoyant perception of karmic causality. This stock list of spiritual powers is a recurrence of a proto-tantric thread that runs all through the Pali Canon and became highly developed in Vajrayana Buddhism, especially in Tibet, and is also experienced, as I have discussed before, in the context of the UFO phenomenon and psychedelic states of consciousness. The references to “as before, so after; as after, so before” etc. and to “a mind that is open and unenveloped” suggests the practice of the expansion of consciousness that one finds in the famous metta meditation. Finally, the Buddha says that the ultimate fruit of the practice of the Four Roads to Power is the destruction of the taints, resulting in the taintless liberation of mind, liberation by wisdom, realized by and for oneself with direct knowledge or gnosis. Once again, the Pali Canon makes it clear that wisdom is the essential salvific principle, as I have discussed elsewhere.

Concentration is explained as “one-pointedness of mind” (SN 51:13(3).  Desire is desire for the renunciation of evil unwholesome states and the development and maintenance of positive wholesome states using the four faculties of desire, energy, mind, and investigation.  These terms suggest the four yogas of the Indian system: bhakti, the yoga of love, devotion, or worship (desire); hatha, the yoga of arduous physical effort; and jnana, the cognitive yoga of mental or philosophical inquiry, whereas the reiterated references to “volitional formations of striving” subsumes karma yoga (cf. Vivekananda’s Four Yogas).

Ananda tells the Brahmin Unnabha that the Four Bases of Spiritual Power is the practice by which desire is abandoned, which he identifies with the goal of the Buddhist path (SN 51:15(5)). Interestingly, therefore, it is by desire, i.e., striving, that desire is abandoned. Immabha objects to the practice on exactly this point, an argument that Ananda refutes, pointing out that when desire is gratified it abates. Similarly, when the desire for arhantship is satisfied, desire abates. This is reminiscent of the Buddha’s distinction between wholesome and unwholesome pleasures, only the second of which he rejects. This in turn became the basis for his rejection of physical asceticism as a way.

The Buddha also says that the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path leads to the development of the bases for spiritual power (SN 51:19(9)).

While on retreat, it occurred to Ananda that the practice of asceticism is successful for one who relies half on good friends and half on “manly effort.” When he returns he asks the Buddha about this, who declares that “this is the entire holy life, Ananda, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship. When a bhikkhu has a good friend, a good companion, a good comrade, it is to be expected that he will develop and cultivate the Noble Eightfold Path” (SN 45:2(2); cf. AN IX:1(1)(5)). Spiritual friendship and energy are thus equated.

Related Doctrines

We have already discussed the correlation between the concept of energy in the Pali Canon and the lunar soma juice.  Soma appears in the Pali Canon as amata, referring to the immortal or deathless state, but also to ambrosia, cognate with Sanskrit amrita, the divine water of immortality, “churned” by the gods from the one world ocean. Energy is cognate with other concepts in the Pali Canon, including karma, the essential kinetic or energetic principle itself; will or intention, which creates karma; craving, which is the human kinetic principle in its fallen, debased, passionate, or “attached” state; and siddhi, spiritual, magical, or psychic powers that are said to result from intense spiritual practice.

We also find the principle of energy implicit in other doctrines of the Pali Canon with which we are familiar: merit, the stored accumulation of positive karmic potential; the transfer of merit, by which merit may be intentionally directed, shared, and increased; the power of truth, which figures prominently in the Jatakas but also appears elsewhere in the Pali Canon; and the act of truth, by which the potential power of truth may be utilized to create change, usually by means of a vow or affirmation. The kinetic principle also appears in the concept of mantra, by which the repetition of a verbal formula with awareness and intention can facilitate spiritual transformation including siddhis; and in mantra-yoga, the original term for Tantra, the yoga of energy or power.

These concepts correlate with similar concepts in other, post-Pali Buddhist and non-Buddhist traditions, including the Indian concept of kundalini, the psychosomatic “serpent” energy “coiled’ or potential at the base of the spine, which the Buddha may have experienced during his practice of asceticism; Tibetan tummo or “psychic heat,” which can be generated to protect the body even in conditions of extreme cold; Chinese qi, the energy of vitality or life, which can be used to affect people at a distance as well as for healing in the practice of Qigong; and finally sexual yoga, which is greatly developed in certain highly esoteric traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, especially Kalachakra.

Zoroastrianism refers to the khvarenah (xvarenah), literally “glory” or “splendour,” referring to a divine mystical force or power associated with kingship and luck. The word is derived from Proto-Avestan *hvar, “to shine,” thus associating it with the devas, the “shining ones.” The word is also attested in Sogdian farn and Khotanese pharra, which refers to the high position or dignity of a Buddha. Khvarenah  is also associated with the haoma, a divine plant cognate with Vedic soma, possibly ephedra, a precursor of methamphetamine that excites the brain and increases body heat.[6] It is still used in Chinese medicine and was also used as a tea by native Americans and Mormon pioneers.

These concepts, doctrines, and practices are not aberrations but rather developments of concepts found in seminal form all through the Pali Canon, and will constitute the subject of Part II of this talk.

Some Synonyms and Cognate Terms for Energy (viriya)

Ardent (atapi)
Arising (uppada)
Arousal (arambha)
Delight (nandi)
Desire (chanda)
Enthusiasm (ussolhi)
Exertion (opakkama, sankhara)
Fire (teja)
Intention (sankappa)
Life (ayu, jivita)
Light (aloka)
Luminosity (obhasa, pabhasa)
Manly effort (viriya)
Heat (usma)
Power (bala, iddhi)
Radiant (abhassaro)
Rapture (piti)
Shining one (deva)
Stirring (eja)
Striving (padhana)
Virtue (silava)
Vitality (ayu)
Zeal (chanda)


Part II

Recapitulation of Part 1

Last time I introduced the topic of energy (Pali viriya), as an important element of the Buddhist path, and associated it with words relating to masculine sexuality. In the Indian tradition, male sexuality is explicitly associated with the spiritual quest, an association that is confirmed by depth psychology. As a man on the verge of self-perfection, the bodhisattva in his final rebirth is portrayed as a virile, healthy, attractive, and sexually active male. The fact that the Buddha was not chaste during his early years created a difficulty for him in the context of the social norms of his time, resulting in accusations of laxness that dogged him all through his life. This is documented in the Pali Canon. Seminal retention was highly valued, and there is no indication that the Buddha was not completely chaste after the age of 29 although he was comfortable consorting with a royal harlot towards the end of his life. In this respect, he was rather like Yeshua, the Galilean bodhisattva, and quite unlike the self-righteous religious moralists of his time and ours.

The Buddhist description of energy (“virility”) is clearly phallic. It is aroused, persisted in, and “exerted.” This may even be the ideological justification for the spiritual misogyny that we find all through the Pali Canon. (However, the Buddha does not appear to have drawn this conclusion.) Arousing energy alone is not sufficient, however. It must also be moderated or it can become a source of instability. “Arousing energy” is in fact the literal meaning of arya, “noble” (lit. “striving”). “Putting forth energy” is especially associated with mental concentration as well as the so-called “walking meditation.” There are also references to a “condition of heat,” those expert in developing this condition, and therefore the implication of a yoga of heat, perhaps similar to that found in Tibetan Buddhism. This “heat” is associated with the snake, as in later Indian traditions associated with the kundalini energy at the base of the spine. The power of energy is also associated with the power of truth and the act of truth. Energy is aroused “for the attainment of the as-yet-unattained, for the achievement of the as-yet-unachieved, for the realization of the as-yet-unrealized,” and is even associated directly with the attainment of nirvana through the light and luminosity symbolism that is associated with the attainment of enlightenment – an association that is not only in the English. Energy is also associated with the attainment of psychic powers, including a “force of life” that promotes longevity and the experience of ecstatic, visionary, and even psychedelic states of mind.

I also identified cognate concepts that appear to be similar to energy that developed in Buddhist traditions, presumably based on the texts I have been citing. Once again, we see Buddhist traditions drawing on the same texts that we also find in the Pali Canon. These concepts include soma, karma, will, craving, siddhi, merit, power of truth, mantra, kundalini, tummo, and qi.  I’ll be discussing some of these traditions in this talk, especially kundalini yoga, tummo yoga, qijong, and sexual yoga.

Kundalini Yoga

The concept of “kundalini” appears to have originated during the Upanishadic period (9th-3rd cent. BCE). The word means “coiled.” It is also the name of the goddess Durga, a form of Shakti, the primordial cosmic energy and divine feminine creative power. Kundalini was used as the name of a “serpent-like” shakti in the eleventh century. The Yoga Kundalini Upanishad was codified in the sixteenth or seventeenth century.

variants_5416Kundalini refers to a psychophysical or psychosomatic “spiritual energy” or “vital force” associated with the area at the base of the spine, in the triangular-shaped sacrum bone, the so-called muladhara chakra. Interestingly, the word “sacrum” means “sacred.” Kundalini is symbolized as a coiled serpent. The signs of kundalini awakening include a variety of physical symptoms, including spasmodic jerking, sensations of electricity, heat, visions, unusual sounds, sexual arousal, emotionality, headache, increased blood pressure, accelerated heartbeat, pain, sensitivity, altered states of consciousness, and disturbances of sleep or appetite. These symptoms may persist for various periods of time but are usually self-resolving if allowed to pursue their own course.

Kundalini yoga is also known as laya yoga (lit. “union by absorption”). It is a Hindu school of yoga influenced by Shaktism and Tantra. Its goal is to “awaken” – a word also used by the Buddha – kundalini. Techniques used to achieve this include meditation, breath work or pranayama, chanting mantras, and physical postures (asanas) or exercises. Practitioners say that kundalini awakening feels like an electric current running along the spine.

Kundalini yoga is a synthesis of hatha yoga (lit. “union by effort”) , kriya yoga (lit. “union by action”), and laya yoga. Two classic textbooks of this yoga include the Hathayogapradikpika and the Shivasamhita. The Shivasamhita refers to four yogas used to activate the kundalini potential: mantra yoga, hatha yoga, laya yoga, and raja yoga (lit. “royal yoga” or perhaps “union by will”) and states that kundalini realization is trans-dual.

The Buddha refers to an illumination that he experienced because of his ascetic practices, which he associated with severe physical pain: “But although tireless energy was aroused in me and unremitting mindfulness was established, my body was overwrought and uncalm because I was exhausted by the painful striving. But such painful feeling that arose in me did not invade my mind and remain” (MN 36:20-25, repeated in MN 85 and 100). This experience was effected by means of intense mental concentration, extreme breath work, and self-starvation. This sounds typical of kundalini awakening. Gopi Krishna, for example, was in an extremely painful dysfunctional state for sixteen years before his kundalini finally became balanced and calm.

When “awakened” or activated, the kundalini is “directed” through the central nerve channel of the spine (the sushumna) through six energy centres or chakras, whence it “penetrates” the seventh chakra, the sahasrara, located at the top of the head, inducing an ecstatic state.[7]

Methods to awaken kundalini are divided into active and passive. Active methods include physical exercises, concentration, visualization, breath work, meditation, and chanting. The passive method is surrendering oneself emotionally to the guru, whence the cult of guru worship or “bhakti yoga” that we find in popular Hinduism and in Buddhism too.

Further Reading

“The Sacrum Bone.” Sahaz E-zine (April 2001), Vol. 2:4. http://holyspirit-shekinah.org/_/sacrum_bone.htm

Sivananda. Kundalini Yoga. Divine Life Society.

Woodroffe, John,  The Serpent Power. 1918.

Tummo Yoga



Tummo (pronounced ‘dumo’) refers to a form of Tibetan breath work based on the Six Yogas of Naropa (11th century); the 12th century Lamdre (Tib. “path”) teachings, regarded as the highest or chief practice of the Shakya school; Kalachakra (10th-11th centuries); and Anuyoga, the second highest practice of the Nyingma system of Tibetan Buddhism, second only to Atiyoga or Dzogchen. The Tibetan word tummo means “fierce [woman]” or “inner fire.”

The fundamental conception of tummo is familiar to us as the system of energy channels or nadis that run all through the body, especially the central spinal cord, and two adjacent channels that run on either side of the spine, associated with “solar’ and “lunar” energies. In tummo, the three lowest chakras are visualized to focus bodily awareness on the area below the navel. Vital energy, conceptualized as a “wind” (Skt. prana), is activated, accumulated, and forced into the central channel by a combination of breath control and other yogic exercises. As it accumulates, the energy creates a “psychic heat” (Tib. drod) that destroys karma.

Tummo is the practical basis of karmamudra, which I’ll discuss shortly in the context of sexual yoga. Interestingly, tummo practitioners wear clothes of special colours to intensify the tummo fire.[8]

The mastery of tummo is part of the completion stage of the Anuttarayoga Tantra. The completion stage follows the generation state. Completion stage “with marks” is based partly on tummo yoga.

Tummo, which is really the Tibetan version of kundalini yoga, also known as candali (Skt. candala, “outcaste”?) yoga was developed as a practice by the Tibetan mahasiddhas (associated with Padmasambhava) between the 8th and 12th centuries. Milarepa was a prominent practitioner of candali yoga.

The ability of tummo practitioners to withstand extreme cold is well attested. In Tibet, the tummo adept is required to spend the night on a glacier glad only in a cotton cloth. If he survives the night, he is considered to have mastered the tummo practice. The Dutch daredevil Wim Hof uses similar techniques to withstand extreme cold, and has been studied by scientists.

The following summary of tummo yoga is based on the classic translation of a Tibetan block print entitled (in English translation) “An Epitome of the Six Doctrines.”

The Yoga of the Psychic Heat consists of five preliminary exercises and three fundamental practices. The essential method is to sit cross-legged, purify the body through a series of intensive visualizations and breathing exercises, and then through the force of meditative concentration activate and direct the “psychic heat” up through the spine to illuminate the brain and the whole body. The result is that one experiences an all-pervading bodily warmth and bliss. Easy to say, hard to do! The complete instruction consists of about forty pages, and presupposes very advanced imaginative and meditative skills. There are several Western witnesses to tummo yoga, including the adventurer Alexandra David-Neel, Lama Anagarika Govinda, and anthropologist Dr. John Crook.

Further Reading

W.Y. Evans Wentz, Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines. London: Oxford University Press, 1935; 2nd ed. 1958; rpt. 1967.



Literally “the practice of vital energy,” qigong is used in Chinese martial arts like gongfu to cultivate and balance qi, or “life energy.” Similar in principle to “walking meditation,” qigong coordinates bodily movements, breath work, and meditation. Qigong is traditionally a secret esoteric practice handed down by lineages of transmission and is especially associated with Taoism. The term is Taoist and originated during the Tang dynasty (7th-10th centuries). There are many forms of qigong, including 75 ancient and 56 modern forms. Today qigong combines Taoist “internal alchemy,” ancient meditations called “cultivating qi” and “standing meditation,” and a breathing exercise called “guiding and pulling.” Qigong plays a role in traditional Chinese medicine for its healing qualities, Confucianism to promote longevity and develop character, and as a form of meditation in Taoism and Buddhism. Since the Cultural Revolution in China, the Communist Party has worked to consolidate qigong theory and practice on a scientific basis. The Qigong Science and Research Organization was established for this purpose in 1985, but the Chinese government has also cracked down on the practice since 1999. The Chinese Health Qigong Association, a state-run agency established in 2000, officially recognizes nine forms of qigong.

The concept of qi is not too dissimilar from the Indian concept of prana, the vital “wind” that is associated with the vitality of the body, but also associated with a universal or cosmic energy. It is based on a theory of energy flow throughout the body, nerve meridians or channels, energy centres, and balancing qi in meridians or other pathways, much like kundalini yoga.

Qigong incorporates five basic techniques: intentional movement, rhythmic breathing, awareness visualization, and chanting or sound. In addition, qigong practice incorporates a soft gaze and an expressionless face; solid stance; relaxation; and balance and counterbalance, where one moves in relation to a centre of gravity. The goals of qigong practice include equanimity, tranquility, and stillness. Practising with little or no motion is generally considered the highest form of qigong practice. One can see the similarity to Buddhism here right away.

0Qigong may be classified as dynamic, static, meditative, and external.  Dynamic or active qigong, called dong gong, is based on repetitive stretching and fluid movements, breathing, and awareness. Static qigong, called jing gong, involves holding postures for extended periods, similar to yoga. An example of a qigong posture is the Horse Stance, which I learned from my chiropractor who was an ethnic Chinese Tai Chi master. External or meditative qigong focuses on meditation, breath work, visualization, and chanting. External qigong utilizes external supports including herbs, food, drinks, massage, physical manipulations, and interaction with other living organisms including treatment by a therapist who directs and transmits qi. Qigong meditation combines slow stylized movements, deep breathing, mental concentration, and visualization of qi in the body.                      

Sexual Yoga

In his Introduction to Buddhism (2nd ed., 2013) Peter Harvey refers quite openly to “sexual yoga,” so I will use that term here.

Tantric Buddhists re-evaluate the body, based on the early Buddhist insight that nirvana is realized through the body. The great Theravadin scholar-translator, Buddhaghosa, went so far as to state that this realization is unique to the dharma. The Guhyasamaja Tantra advances sexual yoga, including pleasure as the path to Buddhahood (enjoying desire without attachment requires a far more rigorous discipline than simple abstinence). Sexual yoga is mostly practised in the first Tibetan Buddhist school, the Nyingma, founded by Padmasambhava in the 8th century. Only partners with years of physical training can practice sexual yoga. The seminal fluid, symbolizing the bodhicitta, is retained and visualized as ascending through an energy channel in the back to the top of the head (the Tibetan version of the sushumna). Even among the conservative Gelugpa, founded by Tsongskapa, sexual yoga is still practised by monastics as a visualization.

The Nyingma have nine grades, levels, or degrees of realization and practice, the top three degrees being Atiyoga (equivalent to Dzogchen), Anuyoga, and the Mahayoga (working with the yidams, symbols of “enlightened energy”; the mental body; and the six yogas of Naropa). According to Harvey, Anuyoga is seen as particularly appropriate for the passionate. While visualizing the energy in the energy channels, and chanting and visualizing mantras, the male is visualized as a male deity and the female visualized as the yidam’s consort or shakti. These embody skilled means and wisdom. In the esoteric twilight language of the Tantras, the penis is called the Vajra (the diamond-thunderbolt representing indestructibility and irresistible force) and the vulva the lotus flower. The sexual energy is inhibited and sublimated, visualized as ascending the spine till it reaches the top of the head, where it generates a blissful state of non-dual radiant clarity; skilled means and wisdom are joined, all concepts and images vanish and there is direct gnosis of emptiness. This yoga is performed in a calm state and with deliberation, so that the energy is directly experienced, “reversed” or “inverted” (“the method of reversal”) and finally transmuted into wisdom.[9]

Although the Pali Canon is clearly misogynistic and anti-sexual, and the sangha was clearly (intended to be) chaste, it is reasonable to include sexual energy in the category of the Buddhist conception of energy, and we have clearly established this is our discussion of the Buddhist concept of viriya or ‘virile energy’ with reference to the oldest Buddhist texts in the first part of this talk. In his final rebirth as a bodhisattva, the Buddha was clearly highly sexed, to put it directly, up until his renunciation at the age of 29, six years prior to his Enlightenment. Thus, the Pali Canon paints the picture of a virile male who transcends his own sexuality in the act of renunciation, rather than a eunuch, whether asexual or repressed, which is more commonly associated with monasticism in the West. The Pali Canon itself states that arhantship is only available to humans for the first two thousand years after the Parinibbana, i.e., approximately 1600 CE (1100-2100 CE allowing for rounding).[10] Once again, the present century is perceived as a time of great significance. Sexual yoga might also be associated with the path of the householder, who is clearly not celibate but who may practise meditation according to the Pali Canon. Even according to the Pali Canon, it is possible for a householder to achieve arhantship. Thus, the prohibition of sexual intercourse according to the Vinaya does not necessarily prohibit the possibility of a Buddhist sexual yoga. Moreover, in fact one finds this to be historically the case. There are even indications in the Vinaya that an unknown but significant number of monastics were not celibate, even during the time of the Buddha.

In Tibet, sexual yoga is called karmamudra, literally “action seal.” This is a Vajrayana or Tantra practice of union with a consort, either physical or visualized. Karmamudra is considered equivalent in attainment to visualization of the yidam and tummo yoga. According to the six Yogas of Naropa, it is either a yoga in its own right or an aspect of tummo yoga. The traditional Tibetan view is that karmamudra is necessary to achieve Buddhahood, although this is not universally held today, including by the present Dalai Lama. This explains the otherwise inexplicable significance of the Bodhisattva’s enthusiasm for women during his youth.

The mastery of tummo yoga is considered to be the prerequisite to practise karmamudra properly. Thus, it is a very advanced practice. Women communicated it through secret oral instructions. Women also wrote seven eighth century tantric texts. In Tibet, non-monastic yogis mainly in the Nyingma and Kagyu schools would practice karmamudra, especially treasure (terma) seekers, ngagpas (non-monastic practitioners of Dzogchen), and hereditary lamas. The practice of karmamudra has also come to the West along with some Tibetan dharma teachers, such as Kalu Rinpoche, with mixed results. See, for example, anthropologist June Campbell’s book, Traveler in Space. There is also a book review online.[11]

Sexuality has featured prominently in the Indian tradition, including Krishna, Ramakrishna, and Aurobindo and the Mother, and others. Even the chaste Krishnamurti had an illicit affair (and Gandhi too, apparently)!

There are also autonomous Western traditions of sexual yoga associated with the gnostic Christians, Swedenborg, William Blake, John Dee and Edward Kelley, Pascal Beverly Randolph, Karl Kellner, Aleister Crowley, Adi Da, and others. Other ancient civilizations, including the Sumerians, Greeks, and Romans carried out sexual orgia in the context of spirituality amounting to a yoga.

The essential metaphysical principle of sexual yoga is the realization that nirvana and samsara are ultimately one in the trans-dual reality. The essential reality of the phenomenon is always enlightenment. This is the ultimate teaching of interdependent origination. Phenomena themselves do not create suffering, it is craving that reifies sentient energy into illusory objects of attachment (kinetic and static). Therefore, all energy is essentially emptiness; the realization of emptiness is enlightenment. The phenomenal, therefore,  can through realization be transmuted from a factor of ignorance into a factor of enlightenment by the skilled means (upaya) of quenching desirous attachment. As Ananda himself states in the Pali Canon, desire disappears entirely when it is completely satisfied (SN 51:15(5)). Therefore, “quenching” (nirvana) is also the ultimate satisfaction of desire. The Buddha never renounces the principle of wholesome pleasure, and nirvana itself is seen as blissful. In order to realize this in practice one must be very advanced towards the realization of emptiness and thus emancipation, for anyone else would not be able to overcome attachment and thus intensify even more one’s bondage to rebirth Therefore, by definition only the very advanced yogi can practise sexual yoga – or a bodhisattva in his final rebirth! At the same time, there are also degrees of practice but and householder forms of sexual yoga logically follow. By following these the householder may be assured of complying with the Third Precept.

In conclusion I’d like to read an explicit description of Tibetan sexual yoga, also called the secret and wisdom empowerments, found on page 233 of chapter 7 of Paul Williams’s Buddhist Thought, by Anthony Tribe, which perfectly summarizes all the of the foregoing. However, Yarmouth is in a general region so in deference to Linden Labs I will refer you to the blog.

The secret and wisdom empowerments were controversial in India for the sexual elements in them. They may still seem shocking today. The secret empowerment, which follows the completion of the jar empowerments, requires the person being initiated, who in the texts is generally presumed to be male, to lead the woman who will be his tantric partner to the Vajra-master. The Vajra-master sexually unites with her. After ejaculating, the Vajra-master collects some of the combined sexual fluids, which is symbolically equated with bodhicitta, form the woman’s vagina. This he places on the tongue of the person being initiated who must swallow it without hesitation, exclaiming ‘O Bliss!’ (Candamaharosana Tantra iii). For the wisdom empowerment the Vajra-master returns the woman to the person being initiated who in turns unites with her. As he does so, he (in theory) should experience a series of four states of bliss (ananda).

Further Reading

Harvey, Peter. Introduction to Buddhism. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

“I Was a Tantric Sex Slave.” The Independent. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/i-was-a-tantric-sex-slave-1069859.html.

Tribe, Anthony. Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition, by Paul Williams. Chapter 7: Tantric Buddhism in India. London: Routledge, 2000.

The Nine Yanas of Nyingma

The ancient school (Nyingma) divided the entire Buddhist path into three vehicles and nine stages. The vehicles are called vehicles because they are means of going (cf. the “chariot” (Heb. merkabah) as a symbol of the “great work” in Cabala).[12] The stages are called stages because they are stages of the way. Anthony Tribe interestingly observed that “this division is broadly chronological. Kriya tantras are generally earlier than the Carya, with the Carya generally preceding the Yoga tantras” (Paul Williams, Buddhist Thought (2000), p. 203). All of these divisions are ultimately divisions of two things, the path and the fruit, which are in turn the kinetic and static aspects of the one ultimate trans-dual reality, the dharma itself.

Each stage is characterized by view, meditation, and activity. In the table that follows, I have focused on clarifying the practice or practices associated with each stage expressed in the simplest and most direct language possible. Many of these practices are cultural adaptations of universal technqiues found all through the perennial philosophy, but are presented in deliberately involved, obscure, and often ambiguous language (the so-called “twilight” language) so are difficult to identify clearly, which is why I have chosen to focus on them here. The table collates multiple references, not all of which agree.

Nine Yana’s of the Nyingma System

Inner  (Internal) Tantra – The Way of Transformation

Atiyoga(yana) (mahamudra) Dzogchen
Anuyoga(yana)(anuttara yoga) (“completion or perfection stage”) Sexual yoga; meditation on the mental body, chakras, winds, energy channels, and essential consciousness (some sources place six yogas of Naropa here)
Mahayoga(yana) (“generation or development stage”) Sexual elements and forbidden/impure substances; working with the yidam,[13] subtle body and six yogas of Naropa[14] (other sources say identification with the deity and their consort or shakti)

Outer (External) Tantra – The Way of Purification

Yogatantra (yogayana) Minor sexual elements (some sources say identification with a deity)
Caryatantra (upa(tantra)yana, ubhaya) Self-identification with a deity (deity yoga) (some sources say regarding the deity as a brother or a friend)
Kriyatantra (kriyayana) Rituals of protection, purification, mantras, and mandalas; deity worship

Sutra – The Way of Renunciation

Bodhisattva Cultivation of the perfections; bodhicitta; realization of emptiness; 37 factors of enlightenment
Pratyekabuddha Tranquility and insight meditation; method of reversal (interdependent origination)
Shrvaka Self-control (ethics) (some sources put insight and tranquility meditation here)
——— [Ngondro]

See Peter Harvey, op. cit., pp. 128 f., 204, 356.

As you can see, sexual yoga is specifically associated with the eighth degree of Anuyoga. Anuyoga corresponds to the Tantric completion phase, already mentioned. In this grade, one visualizes the mental body, chakras, winds, energy channels, and the bindu – lit. “semen,” identified with the vital or essential consciousness (vinnana). One meditates on and experiences the identity of nirvana and samsara as the unity of emptiness and wisdom. The Anuyoga tantras number three thousand pages in Tibetan text. A quick search on Amazon shows that there is one book on Anuyoga in English – Key to Opening the Wisdom Door of Anuyoga, by Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche.

Further Reading

Dilgo Kyentse. “The Nine Ways.http://www.vajrayana.org.hk/Doc/The%20Nine%20Ways%20by%20HH%20Dilgo%20Khyentse.pdf.

Harvey, Peter. Introduction to Buddhism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche. Key to Opening the Wisdom Door of Anuyoga. https://www.amazon.ca/Key-Opening-Wisdom-Door-Anuyoga/dp/B01K3RLWY2/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1493256760&sr=8-1&keywords=anuyoga.

“Nine Vehicles of the Nyingma.” https://earlytibet.com/2007/08/21/the-nine-vehicles-of-the-nyingma-new-sources/.

Zenkar, Alak and Thubten Nyima. “A Brief Presentation of the Nine Vehicles.” http://www.lotsawahouse.org/tibetan-masters/alak-zenkar/nine-yanas.


[1] “Should any bhikkhu — participating in the training and livelihood of the bhikkhus, without having renounced the training, without having declared his weakness — engage in the sexual act, even with a female animal, he is defeated and no longer in communion” (trans. Thanissaro). The qualification is typical of the Pali Canon and indicates one of the means by which some bhikkus sought to evade the injunction.

[2] The Pali Canon implies that Sariputta and Maudgalyayana were even accused of homoerotism, an accusation that the Buddha rejected, stating that that they were only friends. Their cremated remains were housed together in the famous Third Stupa and at the Satadhara Stupa, with Sariputta in the south and Moggallana in the north (the same relations to the Buddha that they had in life). However, the statement that Sariputta was attracted to the sangha by the ”surpassing beauty” of the male monastic, Upasena, clearly implies that he was homosexual, which need not imply that that Sariputta and Maudgalyayana had anything more than a “platonic” relationship, however. Maudgalyayana was violently murdered at the age of 84. See Wikipedia, “Relics of Sariputra and Mahamoggallana.”

[3] Cf. Gen. 38:8-10: “And Judah said unto Onan, Go into unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother. And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother. And the thing which he did displeased the Lord: wherefore he slew him also.” According to an early Rabbinic tradition, this passage refers to masturbation. The Egyptians also regarded semen as a potent and even dangerous substance, and prohibited its wastage. (KJV) (ed.)

[4] Explained as the non-arising of unarisen bad unwholesome qualities, the abandoning of arisen bad unwholesome qualities, the arising of unarisen wholesome qualities, and the maintenance of arisen wholesome qualities respectively (AN IV:69(9)).

[5] Compare the notorious Abignitantra, “तुम्हारी हड्डियों पर अपना मांस लटका दे, और अपनी आँखें अनगिनत तक अपनी शोकहित वासना से चमकते हुए, अज्ञात के लिए अपने जुनून के साथ, उसके लिए वह ज्ञान से परे है जो एक के पास है।”.

[6] The identity of soma or haoma is a matter of dispute. The mainstream view equates it with ephedra, an amphetamine, whereas others hold that soma was a  psychedelic. Whatever its ultimate identity, everyone agrees however that it was a mind-altering substance.

[7] In addition, there are two adjacent channels, the ida (Skt. “comfort”) and pingala (Skt. “tawny”) lunar and solar channels, associated with the left and right sides of the body respectively. The channels wind around the sushumna in a figure 8, similar to the DNA helix. Where they intersect at the forehead, throat, heart, solar plexus, abdomen, and sex organs they generate the corresponding chakras. If you overlap this description onto a map of the internal organs of the human body, you discover an interesting coincidence; the chakras correspond to the glands of the endocrine system in the order pineal, pituitary, thyroid, thymus, pancreas, gonads, and adrenals.  The endocrine system secretes hormones directly into the circulatory system to regulate the organs of the body and is described as an “information signal system.” I have described the Indian system of chakras. The Tibetans have a similar but slightly different variation of this description, which I will not go into today.

[8] David Icke was instructed by his spiritual teachers to wear turquoise, associated in Buddhism with the goddess Tara or Dolma, the Buddhist “Liberation Goddess,” to purify and intensify his psychic energy.  Interestingly, a Tibetan Buddhist tradition is that “wearing ‘living’ turquoise is therefore very desirable, as it will give long life to the wearer” (http://www.exoticindiaart.com/article/colors/2/).

[9] See Harvey, op. cit., pp. 191, 193, 205, 208, 296, 356f. The Dalai Lama tells us that Tibetan tradition teaches us that we experience the state of “radiant clarity” or “clear light state” momentarily when we sneeze, faint, sleep, orgasm, or die (The Universe in a Single Atom (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2005), p. 157).

[10] Anguttara Nikaya (trans. Bodhi), p. 1805, n. 1747.

[11] “I Was a Tantric Sex Slave.” The Independent, 10 February 1999. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/i-was-a-tantric-sex-slave-1069859.html.

[12] The so-called “work of the chariot” has some similarities to kundalini, including the notion of a primal energy that is awakened and directed upward through seven heavenly realms or “wheels” to the highest divine state associated with illumination and bliss.

[13] “The yidam represents awakening and so its appearance reflects whatever is required by the practitioner in order to awaken” (Wikipedia). The Tibetan notion of a yidam may be compared with concepts such as the egregore, patron saint, loa, totem, power animal, or even “holy guardian angel” in different traditions. The yidam symbolizes enlightened energy or “Buddha-nature,” and is thus an emanation of one’s own mind (in its ultimate aspect). Working with the yidam involves high levels of concentration and visualization. Any Tantric deity may be a yidam.

[14] The six yogas of Naropa include the yogas of psychic heat (Tib. tummo), illusory body, lucid dreaming, clear light, intermediate state (Tib. bardo), and consciousness transference (Tib. phowa). See Harvey, op. cit., p. 354.


Buddhism and the UFO Phenomenon

Talk presented at the Riverside Dharma Centre by Tseten Thokmey on Saturday, May 14, 2016


Before we begin tonight’s topic, I wanted to address an interesting question that was submitted to me through the suggestion box. It reads as follows, with a few minor editorial corrections:

What about the importance of superstitious elements in Buddhist texts and teachings?

As example, the “phenomena” that happened around Buddha’s death?  The “body-signs,” that allow [one] to recognize a “holy” person?

The claim about “transcendental realms.” Nobody knows such things for sure.

My standpoint here is:  It is better never to forget the scientific rule: Stay at things that every time can be proven.

(And simply to say, “Yet you did not meditate enough” for explaining why a person cannot accept some sayings is a not an acceptable answer.)

Simply to claim a bunch of things that nobody can prove is the typical sign for religion. And I think, in such a case nobody needs Buddhism in the west. There are already enough religions around.

At one side it is maybe a good idea to bring Buddhist ideas to a wider social stratum, with “popular and easy to understand ideas.”

But the negative side is: The core of the teaching is blurred into an almost useless palaver.

At least in Germany there is a saying: Give people a set of philosophical ideas, and they will make a religion from it.

This is a vexed question to be sure. The writer declares that there are superstitious elements in Buddhism and gives examples, but they don’t give a definition. The question includes a number of hidden (or not so hidden) assumptions, including that nobody knows anything about transcendental realms, that we should never forget the scientific rule [sic] that we should “stay at” things that can be proved (which they have already violated in the previous assumption; you can’t prove a negative), that saying that you need to meditate more is “not acceptable” (why not?), and that accepting things that cannot be proved (assuming of course that this is what we are doing) is the sign of a religion and thus automatically bad (there is also no explanation of why religion is bad). There is also the highly doubtful assumption that religion is just a collection of unprovable assertions, neglecting the obvious historical fact that religion emerges directly out of human experience, often involving thousands of people. The question is ultimately ethical, revealed by the use of words like “should,” “better,” and “acceptable.”

The implicit assertion is that some aspects of Buddhism are superstitious because they are not proved, and that this should not be accepted because only things based on reason, science, and evidence should be accepted.

The view implicit in this question is familiar to us. It is the perspective of Western scientific rationalism, also known, somewhat pejoratively, as “scientism.” Only science is true, therefore, only things proved by science should be accepted as true and only such truths have value. Nothing else should be accepted.  This is the literal meaning of “superstition,” literally “standing outside reason.” However, if we are going to evaluate this question, shouldn’t we ask ourselves whether the axioms and assertions on which the question itself is based are actually true? In other words, is it in fact rational for science to claim that it and it alone is rational, and that the truths that it discovers are the only truths that exist? Moreover, is reason itself self-evidently perfect and complete? In other words, is it true that scientific rationalism is the sole and exclusive standard of truth and value?

I would argue that the fundamental axiom that science alone is true is in fact false. Science may discover facts, but the fact that science discovers facts does not itself prove that science has discovered all facts, or that the facts discovered by science are the only facts, or that the scientific world view derived from these facts is in fact perfect and complete. Facts themselves are notoriously tenuous. To a 19th century Newtonian Einsteinian relativity, quantum physics, and string theory are crazy, as they still are to Randian objectivists for example, yet this difference represents only a century in the whole history of science. If the history of science is any indication – and our writer appears to want us to base our beliefs on experience, not belief – the scientific world view is not static, fixed, or absolute, but constantly changing and evolving. Therefore, how can science be set up as a standard of truth when in another hundred years it will be completely different? One thing is certain – in another million years, science will be unrecognizable to us.

New discoveries by definition are “superstitious,” in that they “stand outside reason,” therefore any view based on the notion that the prevailing scientific ethos is the standard of truth is going to reject and suppress anything that contradicts that world view. Therefore, the moment we take science as the standard of truth we kill science itself and progress ends. Aldous Huxley predicted just such a development in Brave New World.

Moreover, why should we assume that reason is the only arbiter of truth? Truth means the way things are, the nature of the world, the nature of reality itself. Even if we accept that reason and science do discover truths, how does it follow from this fact that only reason and science have this quality. If the premise of the question is true, i.e., that “nobody knows such things,” then neither can we know that they do not exist. Thus, this question contradicts and thus refutes itself at every turn. It sets up the straw man of a perfect standard of truth that neither reason nor science can actually meet. However, there is no such standard. Therefore, the whole question falls apart based on its own premises. Open mindedness rather than disbelief is the correct conclusion.

It is not hard to think of truths that fall outside the purview of science and reason. We all appreciate the truths of great art, music, literature, and philosophy, yet all of these things would be rejected by a strictly scientistic ethic of the sort that our writer is postulating. These are all unproved and unprovable things that are therefore superstitious and have no value according to our writer.  Indeed, such an ethic is discovered upon close examination to be authoritarian and anti-humanist if not fascistic. Art, music, literature, and philosophy have also often been inspired by and inspired religion. What sort of society rejects everything metaphysical, suppresses religion, and only tolerates art, music, literature, and philosophy that serves industry, reason, and science? Attempts were made in the past century to create such a world in the USSR and in Maoist China. Are these societies ethical?

The truly rational, scientific mind does not close itself off to unproven possibilities, and fully realizes that science is a human enterprise that only describes a small, although basic, fraction of reality. Reason itself can never comprehend ultimate reality because it is inherently restricted by arbitrary linguistic conventions that are rooted in human biological evolution. Why should we assume that the human brain is even capable of comprehending reality, any more than we assume that a mosquito can appreciate Bach? The fact that we can, apparently, do so is in fact a great mystery and the stuff of mysticism.

So what about superstitious elements in Buddhist texts and teachings? Since superstition “stands outside reason,” a text or a teaching only becomes superstitious when it is not understood. Science itself becomes superstitious when it is not understood, as I have shown. Therefore, there are no texts or teachings in Buddhism that are inherently superstitious. There are only texts and teachings that are not understood. They only become superstitious when used or misused in a certain way. Otherwise, they are just texts and teachings. The question then becomes, how do we understand Buddhist texts and teachings? The first example mentioned apparently refers to the tradition that the Buddha’s pyre could not be lit until Mahakassapa arrived, and that it then burst into flame spontaneously. Ok, let’s look at this story or tradition. We might doubt that this incident occurred historically, but this only makes it superstitious if we understand this story historically. There are those who would argue that only the historical frame of reference is “valid.” Once again, we have an ethical judgement masquerading as an axiomatic assertion. I think that it fails for much the same reason that assertion that science is the only valid standard of truth fails. So how else can we understand this story of the Buddha’s pyre? In fact, this story can be understood symbolically, as an expression of Mahakassapa’s importance to the sangha or even as an expression of the intensely energetic nature of the Buddha’s attainment and the extraordinary significance of the parinibbana. It might even be understood as an exaggeration of something that “actually” happened. I am thinking of a somewhat similar story about the death of Ramakrishna, that after he died his collarbone was actually hot to the touch. Truth may be communicated in many different ways, not only historically. To say that only historical truths have value is itself superstitious. Human language, history, psychology, theology, and art all attest to the extraordinary importance of symbolism and mythology in human communication.

This question further undermines itself because, in setting up science and reason as the sole standards of truth it sets up scientific rationalism as a new religion, even as it rejects religion. Thus, the question refutes itself.

The Buddha does not simply state that a bunch of things are true. Belief in the truth of a bunch of arbitrary things has no particular merit in Buddhism. The Buddha invites us to investigate the truth of the dharma and thus arrive at its truth through questioning and direct experience. Buddhist confidence is not based on faith, it is based on analysis and experience, and only when you have inquired into the dharma deeply and proved it to yourself will you or should you have confidence in it. If you want to find out about the truth of spiritual experience and the transcendental realms, you can find out for yourself. The Buddha doesn’t demand that you “believe” anything, but like all systems of knowledge, there is a degree of trust involved in the beginning. The same is true of science. The language of science is mathematics. How can one “prove” that mathematics – a human construct – is the language of reality? The fact is, one cannot. It is a faith but it works, so it is accepted. However, what this writer is advocating in his “question” is the very opposite of questioning. Rather, it based on a dogmatic belief in science and reason that does not withstand questioning, combined with an uncritical notion of what Buddhism actually is. Certainly, Buddhism can be as uncritical and naïve as the writer implies, but this does not prove that this is what Buddhism actually is or should be, but only how superstitious and religious people can use or misuse it.

So what about the importance of superstitious elements in Buddhist texts and teachings? I say, investigate them until you find their inherent merit and truth. Then they are no longer superstitious, because they have been looked into rationally. Because reason and science both indicate that not everything is subject to observation and experiment or even knowable, it is better to be open-minded about the infinite possibilities of experience and the modes of knowledge itself, including rationality, language, symbolism, and direct experiential realization. I also think that this is the authentically scientific attitude. Interestingly, it is also the attitude that an increasing number of people are taking to the UFO phenomenon, which makes a nice segue to the topic of tonight’s discussion.


In his YouTube video, “Buddhism and Alien Abductions” (April 26, 2015), the nonconformist Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahm, who has also stirred the pot on the topic of female ordination in Thailand, broached the topic of the so-called UFO contact experience, declaring that while he has never seen a UFO he has seen garudas and nagas! Garudas are enormous predatory birds with intelligence and social organization. Nagas are snakes or dragons that live in lakes or underground streams and are said to guard treasures. A famous naga even petitioned the Buddha to become a monastic! Several Buddhist saints including Gotama himself have been identified with nagas, which can take human form at will (Brahm’s naga was an impossibly huge snake that he saw in the Asian rainforest). The Buddha himself says that the naga is a symbol of the arhant (MN 23).

No less impeccable an authority than A.K. Warder says that the statement of no less impeccable a Buddhist king than the great Ashoka himself that by the king’s conversion to the dharma the gods are “mixing” with humanity refers to an ancient UFO flap! Of course, Warder does not use this exact terminology but the implication is clear to anyone who is familiar with the UFO phenomenon. Perhaps surprisingly, it is also supported by the Pali suttas! Warder writes,

The most likely reference would appear to be to divine portents seen by men, indicating the presence of gods, such as the light and radiance said to precede an appearance of Brahma. … Perhaps Asoka was watching hopefully for the ‘wheel gem,’ … to appear in the sky, and he may have been encouraged by celestial phenomena, such as the appearance of a comet, a nova, or an exceptional display of meteors, to believe that his change of heart and of imperial policy had begun to make itself felt in the universe. That gods might appear to men was widely believed in India in this period. (Indian Buddhism, p. 239f.)

Nor is this the only UFO account associated with Buddhism. The great Buddhist reformer Nichiren avoided execution due to the appearance of a UFO that appeared in the sky like the full moon. In the 19th century, the great Chinese Zen Buddhist master Xu Yun Da Shi climbed Da Luo Peak, where he witnessed numerous UFOs, which he called “wisdom lamps.” Doubtless other examples could be found.

Human beings have described contact experiences with all sorts of mythological beings throughout history. We know these as faires, elves, pixies, gnomes, and other special terms for demigods and quasi-supernatural beings that appear infrequently and interact with humans in various ways. In ancient times, such experiences seem to have been more prevalent than they are today, but as we shall see this may not be the case. Dr. W.Y. Evans-Wentz made a special study of the “fairy faith” in Ireland, and concluded, based on analyzing numerous credible firsthand accounts, that such experiences are less easily dismissed than many might like to believe and that they exhibit their own internal consistency. Native Americans, East Indians, Asians, and indeed all of the peoples of the world describe similar beings, which are often said to interact with human beings, abducting people and children and leaving physical signs behind. There are even accounts of sexual relationships, both voluntary and involuntary, with such beings!

vimanaInterestingly, Buddhism also refers to such beings. In Buddhist vertical cosmology the realm, plane, world, or dimension – I will use these terms more or less interchangeably – next above our own world, and separated from us by the thinnest of veils, is the realm called the Four Great Kings. The Four Great Kings are devas or spiritual beings, described as luminous aerial beings, attributed to the four directions and to the four elements that we know as fire, water, air, and earth – a universal archetype. Thus, the realm of the Four Great Kings is an elemental nature realm. The denizens of this realm resemble the aforementioned fairies, which are also said to be luminous and aerial, including references to deva cities and extensive interactions with humans. The devas are even said to travel in “cars fit for the gods” (DN 32).

In addition to the realm of the Four Great Kings, the Buddhist texts also refer to “earthbound devas” that coexist with people. These are described as socially organized; invisible, although they can make themselves visible if they choose; telepathic and able to influence people and even governments at will; and preferring to live in ancient cities or remote wilderness areas. Earthbound devas are a distinct class of being and should not be confused with either ghosts or hell beings.[1]

Finally, the Buddhist texts refer to the asuras, another class of deva which were expelled from the higher spiritual realms and which inhabit the earth, especially the water or where earth and water meet. These are very advanced and intelligent spiritual beings but their spirituality is oriented toward self-love, power, hedonistic enjoyment, and competition – what we in the West might term “pagan.” They are very ambitious; barbaric despite their spiritual development; and jealous of the higher spiritual beings; many hate people, although the texts also make a point that some asuras honour the Buddha and may even be Buddhists! Although in appearance and behaviour they are similar to the Judaeo-Christian notion of demons, in Buddhism asuras and hell-beings or demons are also distinct classes of being. The Buddhist hells – really, purgatories – and their inhabitants occupy four levels below the human and three below the asuras, below the ghosts and the animals. The asuras are one plane, level, or dimension “below” the human realm, although they interact with human beings as well as the inhabitants of the realm of the Four Great Kings.


Even the inhabitants of the realm of the Thirty-Three Gods, next above the Four Great Kings, interact with human beings from time to time. Asuras are higher than the ghosts and the animals. One of the roles of the inhabitants of the realm of the Four Great Kings, and the Four Great Kings themselves, is to report to the Council of the Thirty-Three Gods on the progress of humanity, in a sort of cosmic hierarchy. This is all Canonical.

Similarly, UFO contactees report encounters with a wide variety of different sorts of beings, some of which resemble the inhabitants of the Four Great Kings (e.g., smallish, gnome-like beings), asuras (e.g., the so-called reptilians), and even Brahmas (divine humanoid type beings). All of these beings seem to be associated with the UFO in a kind of cosmic hierarchy. Thus, UFOs themselves do not appear to represent a singular phenomenon but rather a plurality of mutually interrelated but also distinct phenomena.

All of this may be dismissed as mythology in our age of fasco-corporatism and scientistic nihilism were it not for one singular fact, which has been extensively documented by Jacques Valee in his magnum opus, Passport to Magonia (1969, reprinted 2014), and this is the detailed and extensive similarity of the experiences associated with these beings, including descriptions of the beings themselves, with the modern UFO phenomenon, including the contact experience, as well as clear descriptions of the distinctive traits of the UFO phenomenon in the early Buddhist texts themselves. The latter confirm Vallee’s thesis, of which Passport to Magonia is an elaboration, that the UFO phenomenon, whatever else it is, is an archaic and possibly primordial human phenomenon that has been experienced and described throughout human history and that has psychological and physical aspects that clearly identify the UFO phenomenon as a real, distinct phenomenon that cannot be entirely reduced to conventional causes, including error, hoax,  optical illusions, hallucinations, and mental confusion, as is widely claimed by skeptics who have not studied the data deeply or objectively.

Unfortunately, the whole field of UFO studies has become sensationalized and popularized to the point where it is almost impossible to see it clearly. It has become the tool of an incredible variety of agendas, some of which are based on outright lies and deceptions. Even governments have become involved. Because of this confusion, the majority of the population do not take this phenomenon seriously. However, anyone who takes the trouble to study the available information objectively will quickly discover that this is a mistake. One must, however, select one’s resources carefully, since there is so much disinformation, especially on the Internet.

I certainly don’t claim to be an expert in this field or to have exhausted the available resources, but the researchers that I have personally found to be most credible, and on whose research this talk is based, include astronomer and computer scientist Dr. Jacques Vallee; astronomer Dr. J. Allen Hynek; psychologist Dr. Carl Gustav Jung; Harvard professor and psychiatrist Dr. John Mack; Professor Karla Turner; journalist John Keel; anthropologist Dr. W.Y. Evans-Wentz; and novelist Whitley Strieber. I would also mention string theorist Dr. Michio Kaku in this regard, who has hinted quite broadly that he knows something about this topic. Colin Wilson’s book, Alien Dawn, is a noteworthy popular summary of the evidence based on the research carried out by these individuals. Vallee himself claims to represent an “invisible college” of about a hundred scientists who are privately researching the UFO phenomenon in all of its aspects but do not seek publicity for obvious reasons. To summarize their research in detail goes far beyond the scope of this talk, but you can look up these experts for yourself, including many videos on YouTube and buy their books if you are motivated to do so. The main thing that you will notice about these experts is that, while their conclusions are indeed revolutionary, none of them subscribe to any of the prevailing popular theories about UFOs, including that they are extra-terrestrial in origin.

Vallee in particular has argued that if these things turn out to be extra-terrestrial, he will be disappointed. His own view seems to be that they are intelligent higher-dimensional beings with a long association with humans and the earth, possibly originating beyond the space-time continuum as we understand it. Even if they originated in our universe their civilization is potentially billions of years old, compared to a mere 10,000 years for human civilization. Vallee speculates that they may have learned to master both space and time, in which case the question of their “origin” may be factually meaningless. Since civilization grows exponentially, the qualitative difference between these beings and ourselves is clearly on the order of millions of times. Such a civilization will have harnessed the zero point energy and therefore be trans-galactic, even trans-universal or extra-dimensional in nature and not merely extra-terrestrial.

However, it is not my purpose here to argue about the ultimate nature of the UFO phenomenon, which is clearly very complex, but only to indicate that the phenomenon is real and exhibits real similarities to the Buddhist world view, confirming Vallee’s hypothesis that UFOs have appeared throughout human history. If we accept that UFOs are real, then Buddhism, along with many other religions, appears to be one of the effects of this phenomenon, at least partly, since the Buddha himself is depicted as interacting and communicating with devas or spiritual beings, to which he attributes at least some of his insights, and even appears as a UFO himself! The question that arises, therefore, and is of greatest interest to us is what the Buddhist texts themselves say about this phenomenon, and how this relates to the phenomenon that we experience today. Is there, in fact, a Buddhist theory of the UFO phenomenon?

I would also like to say that I personally did not enter into the study of the Pali Canon with any expectation that I would find any references to the UFO phenomenon. That there are such references came as a complete surprise to me, although I was vaguely aware of similar references in the Mahabharata and the Puranas. UFOlogy was a very peripheral interest of mine many years ago, but I lost interest in it until quite recently, largely because the evidence is so complex and confusing and I did not want to make UFOlogy my main concern. For the record, and in the interests of disclosure, I have seen a UFO. It was a Type IIIc experience in the Vallee classification, a daylight disc in the Hynek classification. I was not contacted or abducted; it occurred in August 1969 in King City, Ontario as best as I can recall, when I was 15 years old. The experience itself was very brief – only about thirty seconds – and is the only such experience of this type that I have ever had, but it showed me that sometimes things appear in the sky that are not easily explained.

UFO references are not incidental to the Pali Canon. One of the most extensive descriptions in the Pali Canon is the Mahasudassana Sutta in the Digha Nikaya. Interestingly, most of the UFO references in the Pali suttas appear in the Digha Nikaya, which according to Buddhist scholar A.K. Warder consists of the oldest and most authentic Buddhist texts. This sutta immediately follows the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, which describes the death of the Buddha. Mahasudassana consists of maha, ‘great,’ plus sudassana, ‘easily seen,’ ‘having a good appearance,’ the proper name of the gods of the plane of the Beautiful Devas, the third Pure Abode of the Rupaloka or world of form. Walshe translates it as “The Great Splendour.” Rhys Davids has “The Great King of Glory.” The language is more than suggestive.

This sutta was spoken in the Mallas’ sal grove at Kusinara, Kosala, shortly before the Buddha’s death in the same place, and is therefore one of the last sermons of the Buddha. The occasion is that Ananda is unhappy that the Buddha is going to die here, “in this miserable little town of wattle and daub, right in the jungle in the back of beyond,” rather than in a great city where the Buddha’s funeral can be arranged by his rich followers in proper style. In response, the Buddha tells Ananda the story of King Mahasudassana, who dominated the region; Kusinara, called at that time Kusavati, was his capital. The Buddha compares Kusavati to the deva city of Alakamanda, thus asserting that devas live in cities and introducing the topic of devas into the discourse.

ezekiel-wheel-ufoThe king was clearly devout, as he went up to the verandah on the roof of his palace after washing his head on the day of the full moon, with the intention of fasting. It is of course well-known that fasting sensitizes the consciousness to spiritual matters, which is why it is prescribed at such times. At that time a “divine Wheel Treasure appeared to him, thousand spoked, complete with felloe, hub and all appurtences.” A.K. Warder clearly accepts Rhys-Davids’s contention that this refers to the disk of the sun. It is also a classic description of a UFO. The description is striking, and is clearly similar to the well-known vision that befell Ezekiel in the Hebrew Bible.

The king realizes that the appearance of such an object – there is no suggestion that the wheel is anything else – is a sign that he will become a World Ruler, and he formulates the intention to become a World Ruler as an Act of Truth. Sprinkling the wheel with water, so it must have been quite small and close,[2] the wheel then moves in the four directions, plunging in and out of the sea, and wherever the wheel goes the king travels with his army and conquers the land without bloodshed, whereupon the king establishes a peaceful dharma empire for himself based on the fundamental legal principles of pansil – do not kill, do not steal, do not commit adultery, do not lie, do not drink alcohol, plus moderation in eating. Thus, he conquers all of the lands from sea to sea, i.e., the whole Indian subcontinent called Jambudvipa. Finally the wheel returns to Kusavati and hovers above the king’s palace, which also doubles as a court of justice.  Thus, the solar wheel treasure (or ‘gem’ in Warder’s translation) became a kind of omen or totem of a righteous World Ruler based on the rule of dharma.

The Sakkapanha Sutta describes another luminous aerial display in which the devas instantaneously transport themselves from the realm of the Thirty-Three Gods to Mount Vediya, where the Buddha is: “Then a tremendous light shone over Mount Vediya, illuminating the village of Amasanda – so great was the power of the devas – so that in the surrounding villages they were saying: ‘Look, Mount Vediya is on fire today – it’s burning! It’s in flames. What is the matter, that Mount Vediya and Ambasanda are lit up like this?’ and then were so terrified that their hair stood on end.”

The suttas also refer to how the devas experience time at a slower rate than human beings, suggestive of Einstein’s time dilation paradox. The devas also occupy space in a peculiar way, in that a vast number of devas can manifest in a very small space. We have already mentioned how the devas prefer wilderness areas, a characteristic shared with UFOs. UFOs also appear to have a telepathic rapport with the people who observe them, like the devas. Brahma appears as an unpredictable luminous aerial display, and the Buddha is described as a flying UFO casting off beams of light!

The great and still unresolved question of course is what are these objects? Vallee suggests that the UFO phenomenon acts like a control system, and that UFOs appear more frequently when the fundamental ideological paradigm of human civilization shifts toward scientific rationalism and materialism. Vallee also associates the appearance of UFOs with apocalyptic images and the end of civilizations. Vallee suggests that UFOs seem to be interested in convincing human beings that higher dimensional beings exist, but do so in such a way that the human social order is not unduly disrupted. That is to say, they seem to have regard for the limitations of human cognition. Since Buddhism is at least in part a result of UFO influence, and is ancient, untainted by modern influences, its explanation is of interest with the caveat that it is well-known that at some UFOs also lie, or combine truth and falsehood in various ways designed to disrupt the same expectations that they create. This suggests that they have a sophisticated agenda insofar as human beings are concerned, which is far from understood.

As I have already mentioned, Jacques Vallee hypothesized that UFOs have a long-standing historical relationship with the earth and with humanity. This alone explains the historical frequency of UFO sightings and contact experiences, their apparent interest in people, their apparent function as a control system, their ability to communicate with us at all, and the quasi-humanoid appearance of their inhabitants. Interestingly, the Aganna Sutta (the Primordial Sutta, DN 27) supports just this view.

Walshe translates the title of this sutta as “On Knowledge of Beginnings.” Rhys Davids has “A Book of Genesis.” Here the Buddha says that periodically at long intervals the world contracts. We know of course that the classical view of modern scientific cosmology is that the universe originates in a singularity, expands, and after a long period gravity forces it to contract back into the original singularity, repeating forever. According to the Buddha, when the world contracts beings are mostly reborn in the Abhassara Brahma world. The name of this world literally means “radiant” or “shining.”   This is the seventeenth plane of Buddhist cosmology, the sixth realm from the bottom of the Rupaloka, next above the Brahma realms, and twelve planes above the human realm. It is also associated with the second jhana of “thoughtless bliss.”

So, the Buddha says, “there they dwell, mind-made, feeding on delight, self-luminous, moving through the air, glorious – and they stay like that for a very long time. Eventually, after a very long time, this world begins to expand again. At a time of expansion, the beings from the Abhassara Brahma world, having passed away from there, are mostly reborn in this world. Here they dwell, mind-made, feeding on delight, self-luminous, moving through the air, glorious – and they stay like that for a very long time.”

This passage clearly indicates the operation of karma. As the universe contracts, suffering increases, and beings degenerate, thus expiating much of their negative karma. As a result, human beings are reborn in the realm of the radiant devas as luminous aerial beings. After a long period, their good karma is exhausted and they are reborn when our universe begins to expand again, still retaining their energetic appearance. Thus, the Big Bang may be regarded as a tunnel or conduit from a higher dimensional world, through which these luminous aerial beings entered into our universe approximately 14 billion years ago. These are the spiritual ancestors of humanity, the original human beings, and therefore also our true nature, “the clear light.” Plato has a precisely similar notion when he describes human beings’ original nature as bisexual flying spheres. The Buddha also specifically states that these beings are neither male or female.

According to the Platonic world view,

in primal times people had double bodies, with faces and limbs turned away from one another. As spherical creatures who wheeled around like clowns doing cartwheels (190a), these original people were very powerful. There were three sexes: the all male, the all female, and the “androgynous,” who was half male, half female. The males were said to have descended from the sun, the females from the earth and the androgynous couples from the moon. These creatures tried to scale the heights of Olympus and planned to set upon the gods (190b-c). Zeus thought about blasting them with thunderbolts, but did not want to deprive himself of their devotions and offerings, so he decided to cripple them by chopping them in half, in effect separating the two bodies. (Wikipedia)

Plato’s description seems to associate humans with the same war in heaven that led to the expulsion of the asuras. The fact that we find this explanation of humanity in Buddhism and in Plato’s Symposium suggests that this is one of those archetypal ideas that characterize the primordial philosophy. Certainly, there are other examples too.

So brilliant were these beings, says that Buddha, that the sun, moon, and stars were invisible. However, this might also allude to the early expansion of the universe, before the stars appeared (about 200 million years after the Big Bang). However, as the universe cooled these beings’ bodies became more and more material, and as it cooled the world evolved. Over vast eons of time, the luminous beings ingested increasingly coarse and more material foods, and as a result, their bodies became more and more physical, finally developing the sexual characteristics of male and female. Out of this came all of the institutions and the vices of human society, including lust, territoriality, lying, stealing, killing, the development of the authoritarian state, social divisions, warfare, etc. 

112357991A variant of this story is repeated in sutta 26 of the Digha Nikaya. Clearly, the Buddhist symbol of the precious Wheel Treasure, the first possession of the righteous World Ruler, representing the Power of Truth and the dharma itself, is a UFO!

The Pali suttas also attest to the reality of psychic powers. Although scientism discounts such abilities, perhaps it will not surprise us at this point in the discussion to learn that the psychic powers attested to by Buddhism, including telepathic communication, astronomical visions, communication with devas, time dilation, teleportation, invisibility, the ability to pass through matter, and levitation are all attested to in the UFO literature as well as in the early Pali Buddhist suttas. Credible modern cases suggest that many of these experiences, perhaps most or even all of them, are not merely psychological, but leave physical signs and are therefore at least partly material in nature. Many UFO experiencers, especially contactees, have reported spontaneously developing many of these abilities after their UFO experiences. Clearly, reality is far more multifaceted and complex than the conventional view allows.


According to the oldest Buddhist texts, human beings originated in the Abhassara Brahma world. Literally meaning “radiant,” the Abhassara world corresponds to the second jhana, characterized by the experience of delight and joy. The Abhassara devas are given to exclamations of joy, and their bodies emit flashing rays of light like lightning. The Abhassara devas look very much alike, but have individuality. The Abhassara world transcends the periodic destruction by fire that characterizes the lower worlds at the end of each age. The Abhassara world is, however, subject to periodic destruction by water. The lifespan of these devas is two or eight mahakalpas, perhaps 3 or 10 trillion years according to one estimate.

When the universe is destroyed, beings are reborn in the Abhassara realm and when the universe reappears, beings from the Abhassara realm are the first to be reborn in our universe.

The texts describe the Abhassara devas as luminous aerial objects. According to our hypothesis, they enter into our universe at the “big bang,” which an increasing number of theorists are hypothesizing is a “white hole,” the terminus of a quantum tunnel that leads to a black hole in another universe. The Buddhist texts state that these beings appeared in the universe prior to the appearance of stars and galaxies, which refers to the first 200 million years of our 14 billion year old universe.

Over time, with the gradual cooling of the cosmic inflation (papanca), the Abhassara devas become increasing coarse and material, losing their luminous appearance as the stars and galaxies appear. This is attributed to their increasing infatuation with sensual pleasure. Ultimately, they appear as gendered human beings, who till the soil for food and develop territoriality, private property, the state, and all the vices associated with human beings – lust, greed, violence, warfare, etc.

devas2bbuddhistmyhology2bnetClearly, however, not all of the devas have lost all of their deva characteristics, and these coexist with us and interact with human beings, especially spiritually advanced human beings. The Buddhist texts refer to different sorts of such beings, especially the inhabitants of the Thirty-Three Gods, which appear as angelic beings; the inhabitants of the realm of the Four Great Kings, which appear as the nature spirits described by all human societies, and asuras, which are spiritually advanced beings that pursue a spirituality based on pride, arrogance, competitiveness, love of power and violence, etc. Nevertheless, at least some asuras, as well as other devas, are receptive to the dharma and venerate the Buddha and thus may be said to be Buddhists.

Although most devas are generally described as aerial and mobile, some devas are earthbound and live on the earth, mostly invisibly, especially in ancient human cities and remote wilderness areas. Sometimes these devas appear to human beings and even communicate with them. As higher dimensional beings, the human mind is an open book to them. They communicate telepathically and can influence human beings, including governments, on a subconscious level. These include the nagas, reptilian beings that can also take on a human appearance at will. Nagas are regarded as relatively advanced spiritual beings in Buddhism. Many advanced Buddhist practitioners have been claimed to be nagas (perhaps, reborn in human form), including the Buddha himself, and at least one naga sought to be ordained as a monastic (a request that the Buddha rejected, which is why candidates for Buddhist ordination are still asked if they are human).

This description is strikingly similar to the UFO phenomenon, including the manifestation of UFOs as luminous aerial phenomena, their apparent intentionality suggestive of intelligence, their ability to manifest physically and communicate with human beings telepathically, and the physical appearance of their inhabitants, which include similar beings of great nobility and beauty; smaller, gnome-like beings; and reptilian type entities. UFO inhabitants also manifest a great range of behaviours, from helpful and healing to positively malevolent and hostile, corresponding to devas and asuras respectively.

In addition to the foregoing, the Buddhist texts also describe a specific UFO-type manifestation called the Precious Wheel Treasure. The Precious Wheel Treasure symbolizes the power of truth and is associated with dharma. The manifestation of this phenomenon has all the characteristics typical of the UFO phenomenon, including luminosity, unpredictability, apparent intelligence, spiritual messages, and the classic “psychic powers” described in the Buddhist texts, including the ability to replicate and project multiple images of themselves, invisibility, the ability to pass through matter, and levitation or flying behaviour, as well as inducing astronomical visions and powers of healing and time dilation or “lost time.” People who have close encounters with UFOs often report developing at least some psychic abilities themselves, and often experience personal transformative experiences characterized by enhanced creativity, compassion, and spiritual and environmental concerns, as well as clairvoyance, clairaudience, astral travel, physical travel to other realms, and telepathy, also reported in the Buddhist literature.

The coincidences between the UFO phenomenon and similar descriptions in the Buddhist suttas are striking and extensive. It stretches credulity to believe that these similarities are accidental. These similarities further support Jacques Vallee’s hypothesis that the UFO phenomenon is ancient, perhaps even primordial, and has been experienced and described by human beings for thousands and probably tens of thousands of years at least.



[1] See, e.g., I.B. Horner, trans., The Book of the Discipline (Vinaya-Pitaka), Vol. I (Suttavibhanga), p. lvii. Horner also refers to monastics having sexual intercourse with yakkhinis, paralleling similar UFO reports.
[2] Credible contemporary accounts of “sphere UFOs” describe them as about 3 feet in diameter and approaching people as close as ten to 15 feet. See The UFO Enigma of Flying Spheres and Orbs. 


Buddhism and Alien Abductions

Did Humans Evolve to See Things as They Really Are?

Hsu Yun

John E. Mack on Dalai Lama’s Views on UFOs and Aliens

Mogoa Ancient UFOs – Thousand Buddha Caves

UFO Witness Buddhist Monk

Upali Sutta (MN 56)

Presented to the members of the Buddha Center on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2015

Discourse to Upali

Majjhima Nikaya 56

1-lord-mahavira-namrata-bothraThe location of this sutta is Nalanda, Magadha, near Rajagaha, in Pavarika’s Mango Grove.

The Pali name for Mahavira, the Guide of the Jains who lived about the same time as the Buddha, is Nataputta, the Jains themselves being referred to as “naked ascetics” (niganthas). The sutta tells us that Mahavira – I’ll use the more familiar terms henceforth – is staying at Nalanda with a large gathering of Jains. One of these, Digha Tapassi by name, visits the Buddha after alms round. After exchanging pleasantries, the Buddha invites him to sit. The Buddha proceeds to quiz Digha Tapassi about the teachings of Mahavira.

The Buddha asks him, “How many kinds of action does the Nigantha Nataputta describe for the performance of evil action, for the perpetration of evil action.”  A vexed question to be sure! Nataputta’s reply is even more obscure: “Friend Gotama, the Nigantha Nataputta is not accustomed to use the description ‘action, action’; the Nigantha Nataputta is accustomed to use the description ‘rod, rod.’” Bodhi opines that “the Jains regarded bodily, verbal, and mental activity as instruments by which the individual torments himself by prolonging his bondage in samsara and torments others by causing them harm,” the rod being an instrument of punishment (as in the English idiom, “spare the rod, spoil the child”). The Buddha reformulates what appears to be a semantic distinction to how many kinds of rod does Mahavira “describe.” Tapassi’s answer is that Mahavira teaches three kinds of “rod”: body, speech, and mind (in Vajrayana these are called the Three Vajras – “mysteries” in Tendai and Shingon – but, perhaps not surprising in view of other talks, are found explicitly formulated in the Pali Canon as the three primary karmic factors). The point is that Mahavira recognizes body and speech as independent karmic causal factors in addition to mind. This of course contradicts the Buddhist view that intention alone causes karma, and leads to a completely different view of the path that leads to inaction and self-mortification.

This sutta is another demonstration of the Buddha’s dialectical method.

The Buddha asks Tapassi which of the three Mahavira considers the “most reprehensible for the performance of evil action,” to which Tapassi replies that Mahavira considers the bodily road to be most reprehensible. Tapassi then asks the Buddha which “rod” he considers most reprehensible. The Buddha replies that he does not use the description “rod” but rather ruses the description of “action,” thus inverting the original conversation. He replies that he also considers each of the three kinds of action to be independent of each other, but with mental action as the most reprehensible. Thus, the Buddha distinguishes his teaching from that of Mahavira in two respects:

  1. The use of the term “action” instead of “rod.”
  2. That mental instead of physical action is the most reprehensible.

Bodhi suggests that “mental action” may refer to volition or intention as the root of karma, but (he says) the commentary identifies “mental action” with wrong view.

Tapassi then goes to visit Mahavira, possibly in or near Balaka, thus dating this sutta prior to the death of Mahavira about 425 BCE, somewhat before the death of the Buddha himself between 411 BCE and 383 BCE (cf. DN 29). Just as the Buddha was interested in what Mahavira thought, so Mahavira is interested in the teachings of the Buddha.

Mahavira praises Tapassi’s explanation of Mahavira’s teachings and declares that the mental “rod” is insignificant compared with the bodily rod – the precise opposite view to that of the Buddha.

Upali, Mahavira’s foremost disciple, declares that he will go to the Buddha and defeat him in argument on this point, but Tapassi warns him that “the recluse Gotama is a magician and knows a converting magic by which he converts disciples of other sectarians.”  One is reminded of the Buddha’s reason for  rejecting the cultivation or demonstration of psychic powers. Mahavira dismisses this objection, however, and encourages Upali to go and refute the Buddha’s doctrine. He even suggests that the Buddha might be converted to Jainism!

Upali goes to see the Buddha. The Buddha declares that “if you will debate on the basis of truth, we might have some conversation about this,” thus establishing the proper basis for any discussion of Buddhist doctrines. Upali agrees. Elsewhere the Buddha emphasizes “common ground” in constructive dialogue.

The Buddha presents Upali with a scenario. Suppose (the Buddha says) a Jain were sick and needed cold water to survive. However, Jainism prohibits the use of cold water because it might contain living organisms (a distinction that we now know to be false, both hot and cold water containing living organisms). Nevertheless, he longs for the cold water that would save his life. Thus, he keeps his vows physically and verbally but violates them mentally. In what state (the Buddha asks) would he be reborn?

Upali replies that he would be reborn among the “mind-bound devas as he is still attached in mind, but not in body or speech. The Buddha replies that Upali has contradicted himself, presumably because the Jain’s rebirth is determined exclusively by his mental attachment. Thus, his mental attachment is more important than his (lack of) physical attachment. Nevertheless, Upali reasserts his original statement that physical action is the most reprehensible.

Next, the Buddha forces Upali to admit that Mahavira teaches that non-volitional infractions of moral law are not demeritorious (as in Buddhism). The Buddha then asks Upali which rod “willing” appertains to. Upali is forced to admit that it appertains to the mental rod, once again proving the Buddha’s point. Nevertheless, Upali reasserts his original statement that physical action is the most reprehensible.

The next argument of the Buddha refers to the notion of psychic powers. He asks Upali whether a man with a sword could kill off the inhabitants of Nalanda (the town where they were at the time) singlehandedly. Upali agrees that such a notion is absurd. But, said the Buddha, could a recluse or brahman with “supernormal power and attained to mastery of mind” do so by an “act of hate”? This is of course the situation of the great Tibetan saint Milarepa, who started his quest as a sorcerer. Upali agreed that he could. The Buddha points out that therefore the mental rod is greater and more powerful than the physical rod, once again contradicting Upali’s original position. Nevertheless, Upali reasserts his original statement that physical action is the most reprehensible.

Next, similar to the previous point, the Buddha reminds Upali that, according to tradition the Dandaka, Kalinga, Mejjha, and Matanga forests, became forests by means of a mental act of hate on the part of the seers.

The foregoing establishes quite clearly that the Pali Canon clearly asserts the reality of psychic, supernormal, or magical powers.

The Buddha reminds Upali that he agreed to debate on the basis of truth, yet every answer he gives contradicts his original position. Upali admits that he agreed with the Buddha from the very first example, yet he continued to oppose him in order to “hear the Blessed One’s varied solutions to the problem,” whereupon he takes refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha for life as a lay follower. The Buddha exhorts Upali to “investigate thoroughly, householder. It is good for such well-known people like you to investigate thoroughly.” Upali contrasts the Buddha’s commitment to inquiry with the attitude of other sectarians, thus clearly distinguishing Buddhism from sectarianism. The Buddha even advises Upali to continue to give alms to the Jains based on his long association with them! Once again, Upali praises the Buddha for recommending that Upali give gifts to others and not only to the Buddha and his followers.

The Buddha gives Upali “progressive instruction” on giving, virtue, the heavens (i.e., higher dimensions of reality), the danger of sensual pleasures, and the blessing of renunciation, i.e., a general religious talk as we have seen elsewhere, followed by a “special” teaching on the Four Noble Truths. “The spotless immaculate vision of the Dhamma arose in” Upali, and he realized the universality of arising and cessation. Immediately he became a stream entrant.

Returning home, Upali advise his “doorkeeper” to no longer admit Jains to his home because he has become a follower of the Buddha. If they need alms, however, they should wait and alms will be brought to them at the door.

Digha Tapassi heard that Upali has converted to the Buddhadharma, which he reports to Mahavira. Mahavira doesn’t believe it, and asks Tapassi to go to Upali’s home to verify that this is true, which he does. Mahavira still does not believe it, and goes to Upali’s home himself, together with a large number of his followers, and asks to see Upali, who meets with them in his home “in the hall of the central door,” perhaps some sort of antechamber. Whereas before Upali would give Mahavira the best seat, today Upali himself takes the best seat, to Mahavira’s chagrin.

Mahavira becomes abusive, and accuses Upali of insanity, having been caught up in the Buddha’s “net of doctrine” and converted by his “converting magic.” Upali does not deny this, but rather praises the Buddha’s “converting magic.” Bodhi notes that Upali is referring specifically to his attainment of stream entry.

Upali replies by means of a parable that “the doctrine of the foolish [Jains] will give delight to fools but not to the wise, and it will not withstand testing or being smoothened out,” comparing Mahavira’s teachings to a monkey! On the other hand, Upali says that “the doctrine of that Blessed One, accomplished and fully enlightened, will give delight to the wise but not to fools, and it will withstand testing and being smoothened out,” comparing the teachings of the Buddha to a pair of new garments.

Mahavira points out that Upali is known to the king and the Jain congregation as a follower of Mahavira, and asks him whose follower he should now be considered to be? Upali’s response is curious, in that it implies that he is wearing robes (perhaps the white robes of a lay follower of the Buddha). It also seems to imply the presence of the Buddha, since the text says that he “extended his hands in reverential salutation in the direction of the Blessed One” (perhaps the direction where the Blessed One is staying?), and recites a poem in praise of the Buddha in response to Mahavira’s question, which he compares to a heap of flowers.

Upali praises the Buddha using many epithets, including: the Wise One, the Blessed One, the Illuminator, the Hero, the Best of Seers, the Noble One, the Tathagata, the Sublime One, and the Enlightened One.

The poem compares the task of the arhant to that of a soldier, in keeping with the Buddha’s caste. He is the victor in battle, the excellent leader, the leader of the herd, elephant-like.

However, most of all the Buddha is described by his psychological qualities. He is undeluded, unperplexed, confident, sorrowless, content, aware, insightful, skilful and able (punning on the Shakyan family name from which the Buddha comes), conversant, balanced, honest, humble, unworldly, ethical, wise, free, quiet, restrained, happy, beyond any possibility of temptation or vice, independent, fearless, completely self-possessed, retired, and dispassionate. Above all, he is the Tathagata who has liberated and freed himself from the inveiglements of rebirth.

The Buddha is explicitly affirmed to have gained the Triple Knowledge, i.e., the knowledge of the Vedas that underlies Brahmanism.

One can discern a broad development in the stanzas of the poem, beginning with the Wise One whose knowledge is perfect. As such, he is the leader, the bull elephant, especially in the realm of religion, wherein he has achieved the apex of realization, characterized as dispassionate wisdom and freedom from involuntary rebirth.

Most worthy of gifts, most mighty of spirits,
Most perfect of persons, beyond estimation,
The greatest in grandeur, attained the peak of glory:
The Blessed One is he, and I am his disciple.

This poem causes Mahavira to vomit hot blood, and be carried away to Pava on a litter, where he dies, thus dating the sutta to about 425 BCE as stated at the start.