REALMS OF WONDROUS GIFTS
Psychic, Mediumistic and Miraculous powers in the Great Wisdom Traditions
By Santoshan (with conversations with Glyn Edwards)
Published by The Gordon Higginson Fellowship (ISBN 978-0-9557527-0-4)
£6.99. 140 pages
When we look at the beginnings of a religion, we frequently find that there are reports of such things as profound meditational experiences, or we find a founder or an early leader displaying supernormal gifts. In the course of a religion’s history, we invariably find holy men or women displaying various powers, such as healing and prophecy. Ancient scripture, such as the Old and New Testament, the Yoga Sutra
and the Bhagavata Purana
, mention a variety of phenomena that include the hearing of voices, visions, reading other people’s minds and levitation.
Problems with experiences
Within all beliefs there are followers who want to claim the experiences and phenomena that unfold in their tradition show that their path holds the Final Truth, or that they have been chosen over others as special in some way. Some go as far to condemn anyone displaying supernatural powers, or having deep spiritual experiences, outside of their tradition as false. Or even worse, that they are being mislead.
Wholism, on the other hand, implies bringing all parts
together in order to discover a balance and harmony of the many facets of life. For the majority of the great mystics, lamas and yogis, study, the development of the mind, everyday life, work and practices of prayer and meditation are unifying facets of the whole of spirituality. It is not a life of escapism and blissing out, but spiritually living and acting in the world and using all our powers for good.
The powers in Hindu spirituality
When we look at the yogic and Hindu spiritual tradition we find that since early Vedic times, around the 2nd millennium BCE, there has been the belief in various extraordinary powers, including the power of specialised rituals and the creative use of prayer and mantra helping to maintain cosmic order.
Powers of various kinds, performed by different teachers and masters, are mentioned in an array of revered teachings, such as clairvoyance, telepathy, making oneself and objects invisible, and the ability to leave the physical body at will and enter another body – even a dead body.
Book three of the classic Yoga Sutra
teaches about various powers that can be developed through yoga practices. Once the practitioner has control over his or her consciousness he or she reaches a particular stage of meditation where certain powers are acquired, such as memory of previous existences, and knowing the cries of all creatures and the mental states of all people.
Through practices, such as pranayama
, students are able to become more aware of the pranic
energy that works both within and around them, and open up to psychic and transforming spiritual realms of being and the powers that these can bring.
The powers in Buddhist spirituality
Although it has to be said the Buddha believed that psychic or miraculous powers had limited value – the true aim being to transcend the world of unsatisfactoriness (duhkha
) – and even goes as far to say he loathes the display of them in some of his teachings, such as the Digha Nikaya
(1:213), there are accounts of him performing a whole series of them, which he does in order to help his disciples in some way, or to convert people (even though he would normally have converted people by preaching).
Both the Samannaphala Sutta
and the Visuddhimagga
describe numerous others gifts, such as multiplying oneself many times, becoming invisible, walking through solid walls and mountains, diving in and out of the ground as though it were made of water, travelling through the sky bilocation and producing a shower of water from the lower part of the body, along with fire from the upper part.
But the Buddha warns us not to be tempted too much by them and so lose sight of the goal of liberation from birth, death and rebirth and other important areas of development, such as helping others to overcome their suffering.
The powers in Jewish spirituality
One of the most fascinating things in the Jewish scriptures is the mention of angels. They are looked upon slightly differently, but no less significant, to how some might think of them today; for the Hebrew term malakh
, meaning angel, is sometimes used in early sections of the Bible to refer to beings who have human form carrying God’s message. In the account of the fall of Jericho, Joshia sees a man standing in front of him claiming he is a commander of the Lord (Josh. 5:13-14).
As well as angels, both the Old and New Testament make numerous references to the significance of dreams and their meanings and were also seen as important by the early Church fathers, including St. Augustine. Further to this, there are various famous nature miracles reported in the Book of Exodus, such as a strong wind causing the Red Sea to part (14:21). Elsewhere, there is mention of fire that is said to have fallen from the Lord to consume burnt offerings (1 Kgs. 18:37-38) and manna/food appearing at a time when the Israelites were wandering in the desert and in need of nourishment (Exod. 16:26-36).
There are other miraculous happenings, such as accounts of healings mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures, prophets and of which perhaps the most remarkable is recorded in the First Book of Kings (17:21-22).
Additionally, the Hebrew Bible contains numerous prophecies. A prophet, it ought to be said, is someone who is believed to have been appointed by God to spread God’s message or teachings – sometimes reluctantly, as seen in the account of Moses and his ministry – or motivated by a higher justice to take action and protect the rights of those without a public voice. They are people who are often moved with the help of Divine inspiration to take compassionate action in times of great social injustice.
The powers in Christian spirituality
Much is popularly known about the miracles of Jesus, such as curing those who were blind, sick or lame, bringing Lazauras back to life, calming a storm, walking on water and turning water into wine. But it is, perhaps, the way in which he is said to have both entered and left the world that are thought to be the most miraculous events in his life.
In Chapter 28 of Matthew’s Gospel, it describes how Mary Magdalene and the “other Mary” find Jesus’ tomb empty and how an angel tells them that Jesus has risen, after which they meet Jesus on their way to tell the disciples what had just happened. Or perhaps we should say ‘other disciples’, if we take the view of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, which sees Mary Magdalene as one of the main disciples and fitting the role of an apostle herself.
The oldest of the canonical Gospels is Mark’s Gospel, of which the original stops at Chapter 16, Verse 8 (Verses 9-20 were added later), and describes how Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James and Salome, find the tomb empty and meet a young man in white who informs them that Jesus has risen. In Chapter 24 of Luke’s Gospel, Cleopas and another disciple are the first to be mentioned as seeing Jesus, and there are several women, including Mary Magdalene, who go to the tomb and find it empty, and are met there by two men wearing shining clothes, who ask them why they are, “looking for the living amongst the dead”.
In Chapter 20 of John’s Gospel, only Mary Magdalene is said to have gone to the tomb and found it empty. After this she tells Simon Peter and the disciple Jesus loved, who then make their way to the tomb to see for themselves. It is only once they have gone home that Mary Magdalene then sees two angels in white, who ask her why she is crying and then sees Jesus, who tells her not to hold onto to him, as he has not yet returned to his Father.
The contradictions in the four Gospel accounts obviously makes one wonder just how much of them are reliable. But we have to remember that they are not historical documents, although some Christians try to use them this way, but are testaments of faith. In addition to this, the term ‘resurrection’ is symbolic language and can mean different things to different people. The finding of the empty tomb and Mary Magdalene’s involvement as a chief witness are the only consistent elements.
In analysis, the question has to be asked, as to whether an empty tomb implies that Jesus’ physical body was actually resurrected or not. But the fact that women are featured so heavily in the Gospel accounts adds validity to them, as prejudice towards women in Jesus’ time shows that they were not usually looked upon as reliable witnesses. Therefore, if someone was to fabricate a story of this kind during this period and wanted to convince others about its credibility, one would not have included women as central eye-witnesses.
Jesus’ transfiguration, where it is said his face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as light (Matt. 17:2) or a flash of lightening (Luke 9:28), has become a popular episode in his life for some Spiritualists to identify with. There are indeed some parts of the event that are comparable to Spiritualistic types of physical phenomena, such as the materialisation of the deceased Moses and Elijah (Matt. 17:3 and Luke 9:30) and a discarnate voice that spoke to Peter, James and John (Matt. 17:5). The mention of the bright cloud that enveloped them (Matt. 17:2) was speculated by James F Malcolm to possibly be ectoplasm.
The powers in Islamic spirituality
The Qur’an is in fact considered to have been created in a miraculous way: as a Divine revelation. Because of this, it is referred to and looked upon as a miracle itself. Some Muslims have claimed that the Prophet Muhammad was actually illiterate, and that this ads more weight to the claim of their Holy Books being a miracle.
Although the Qur’an is seen as the principal miracle that happened in the life of the Prophet, the Hadith
, which contains his sayings and numerous legends about him, attributes many other miracles to him, such as splitting the moon on one occasion when the people of Makkah requested to see a miracle.
There are accounts of the Prophet multiplying water and food on different occasions. Once there was not enough water for ritual washing before prayer time. Muhammad put his hand inside a vessel that contained only a small amount of water and then spread out his fingers. Water then gushed out like a fountain for everyone to use. There are other miracles and miraculous events that are said to have happened around Muhammad and performed by him, such as the restoring
of a blind man’s sight, and rocks and mountains being heard to speak and pay tribute to him.
But it is perhaps the Prophet’s miraculous night journey (the miraj
) that is the most fascinating. Sura
/Chapter 17 in the Qur’an mentions how he was transported from the town of Makkah to Jerusalem, where he then ascended to heaven, accompanied by the angel Gabriel. There he conversed with Moses and was given the obligatory prayers for the followers of the faith. Afterwards, he was taken back to Makkah. The famous Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is said to mark the exact spot where he ascended to heaven.
Bringing the strands together
It can be seen that each tradition takes a slightly different stand about miraculous powers and how they manifest, and that even within each tradition there are diverse views.
According to the religious studies scholar Mircea Eliade, “he who succumbs to the desire to use them ultimately remains a mere ‘magician,’ without power to surpass himself”. But contrary to this, it can be seen that having been attained, the powers are often used in different spiritual traditions. The emphasis for taking a spiritual perspective is generally on humility, non-attachment, living virtuously and other practices, such as the cultivation of insight, mindfulness and compassionate actions.
It ought to be said that to be classed as a mystic – or even as a spiritually aware person – one need not display or possess any miraculous powers at all, other than the above things mentioned, although technically a true mystic is someone who is seeking to bring his or her life in harmony with God in some way.
The ultimate gifts and wisdom of wholeness and unity
What comes over clearest and as the most important in the lives and teachings of various mystics, Buddhas and yogis is the quest for spirituality (instead of religious barriers) – compassion and loving one’s neighbour being the greatest gifts, and discovering a peace, wisdom and an equanimity that helps us to put our finer qualities to use in practical ways.
Buddhists place much emphasis on daily life practices. Within Hinduism there is karma yoga, which is about making all of our actions skilful and mindful. In Islam and Christianity there has often been work done for the poor and sick (charity being one of the Five Pillars of Islam).
For the powers themselves, when used by those who have not reflected upon the broader implications of spirituality, can even divide its followers into those who are seen to have the gifts and those who have not, whereas in reality everyone is endowed with worthy abilities, but it is how we use them that makes them spiritual and profoundly effective. A healthy spirituality values all creative abilities and areas of development and helps them to flourish; for our authentic nature is the key to infinite creative potential, which is available for us to use in every moment.
If the whole is not included in development it can cause a split between the individual and other spheres of life – the Spirit world and the physical world are not two separate things – and leave the door open to an unnatural balance of power where those with certain gifts have the final say and cannot be questioned, which disencourages free thinking, a spiritually mature acceptance of difference and the wisdom which is within everyone to be truly appreciated and helped to grow.
It is not that the Spirit, the Divine and the realms of spirituality are in the possession of only a certain few, as is often seen in unhealthy cults and fundamentalist strands of belief. The Ultimate Reality is that everyone
is in touch with these in an infinite variety of different ways. They are bound-up with and work through all, including ourselves and the Earth we walk on. We are, after all, a part of and connected to the Earth and nature.
Realms of spiritual being
The most important openings lead us to skilful acts of compassion, to wisely and deeply connecting with the unfolding mysteries of life and the universe, to caring for the Earth and all its inhabitants and biological diversity. For within us there is the Creative Divine Impulse, which is full of wondrous gifts of numerous kinds; not just psychic, shamanistic or mediumistic ones, or the traditionally considered miraculous. For just being is miraculous. Rabbi Abraham Heschel reminds us that, “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy”.
When there is an awakening to the spiritual realms of being, it is only natural that every moment and facet of our lives will start to become more harmonious and begin to reach out to deeply embrace and include all (other life, people, faiths and the Earth) in a unifying whole.
We have to remember why the Buddha, Muhammad, the Jewish prophets, Jesus and many of the great yogis and yoginis are remembered. The Buddha in particular, is primarily respected throughout the world for his insights into the human condition, his teachings on non-violence, loving-kindness, transforming all that inhibits our true nature and how to live in harmony with life and find peace in every step.
Without a holistic message of a compassionate unity that transcended religious dogmas and social divisions, Jesus would have soon been forgotten. Muhammad’s wisdom, and his everyday life and conduct, are held up as examples for Muslims to live by, and the central message of the Qur’an is one of peace and surrender to the spiritual will
of the Divine – a life of non-harm and brotherhood and sisterhood with others (“Let there be no compulsion in religion” the Qur’an states: 2:256). For the majority of Muslims, the true message of Islam is about equality, an acceptance of differences, and to be a patient, respectful and loving person, with no discrimination or unwholesome qualities.
A popular prayer from Jewish scripture calls upon God to establish peace, goodness, blessing, graciousness, kindness and compassion upon us all and upon the people of Israel. The prophetic message of Micah in the Hebrew Bible, reminds us that every individual has an obligation to both God and his or her community to act justly, be merciful and walk humbly with God (6:8).
Throughout human history, every age has seen those who have distorted such teachings and spiritual examples of being human in order to exclude others for political ends and for self-gain, or because of a lack of understanding. But the real heroes are those who have lived by teachings of harmony, inclusiveness and unity in diversity, who were invariably inspired at certain times in their lives to call for compassionate action and to speak out when human rights were threatened. In today’s world we also have to consider the rights of non-human species and include the preservation of nature, of which we are intrinsically bound-up with.
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As well as an insightful introduction and four in-depth and illuminating chapters by the author, ‘Realms of Wondrous Gifts’ includes two extensive conversations with the international medium Glyn Edwards on the Powers and Spirituality and their implications.
SANTOSHAN (STEPHEN WOLLASTON)
studied World Religions and Religious Education at King’s College London, has a creative background as a spiritual writer, graphic designer and musician, and one of the founding fathers of The Gordon Higginson Fellowship (www.ghf-web.com).
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