Magic Milarépa: Passing through Solids

Here is a story from the Christian Bible concerning Jesus after his reported resurrection:

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
— John 20:19 (NIV)

Here is a story related by Ngakpa Chögyam concerning Milarépa (1000 AD), a Buddhist saint:

There is a story of Jétsun Milarépa, the great yogi poet of Tibet, in which he’s challenged to a debate by some ostensibly great scholar.  As it’s the scholar who has challenged Milarépa, he asks Milarépa to choose a subject.  Milarépa replies that the scholar can choose whatever area he wishes — the subject is irrelevant. Milarépa has no topic at which he ‘excels’ – his knowledge has become unified with space; and, as such, there is no meaning at all in choosing a subject of debate.  The scholar decides that he will easily defeat Milarépa through the use of Madhyamika philosophy.  This is the philosophy which proves the empty nature of all phenomena and the empty nature of ‘self’.  The scholar launches in by asking: “Does this rock have solidity?” (Scholars are prone to ask such questions, imagining that these issues are highly consequential.)  The scholar expects Milarépa to be ignorant of the logical analysis that pertains to such questions.  He is therefore surprised and not a little put out when Melarépa answers: “No.”  Undeterred, the scholar says: “But this is nonsense!  See for yourself!”  and taps the rock with his staff to prove his case.  Milarépa simply passes his hand through the rock as if it were not there, and says: “See no reason to believe in the existence of this rock.”  The scholar is quite taken aback by Milarépa’s powers, but his arrogance gets the better of him and he concludes that this must be some kind of trickery on Milarépa part.  So the scholar then waves his hand through the air, asking: “Does this space have solidity?”  Milarépa replies: “Yes”, and proceeds to beat on the air so loudly with the scholar”s stick, that the man has to cover his ears for the din.  At this point the scholar realises that he has made some sort of error.  He sees that he was rather badly mistaken in assuming he could best Milarépa in an intellectual debate.  He is all the more impressed when Milarépa shows no sign at all of being jubilant about his own victory.
— “Wearing the Body of Vision” (pg 77)

Did Jesus walk through walls?  Did Milarépa pass his hand through a rock?  Was the scholar really arrogant to doubt a miracle?  Miraculous stories of ghosts and saints passing through solid objects abound in religious and folk lore around the world – Africa, South America, Asia, Europe…  We have stories of flying, producing food out of thin air, disappearing and healing.  All these, and more, are common in miracle stories.

But what are we to do with magic?  How should we think of it?  Unfortunately, magic has never been verified by careful recordings to allow strong empirical evidence.   Sure, we have lots of stories and anecdotes, but no significant, weighty evidence.  Yet everyone loves magic stories.  What should we do with this universal character of magic?

I, personally, am a strange mix of having a pragmatic methodological naturalist mental temperament while having a mystical emotional temperament (see some of my unusual experiences here) thus, I find magic and miracles enticing.  But there is good reason to remain skeptical of magic.  But magic also offers us much or it wouldn’t remain around.  Below is a Pro/Con list of the value of magic.  Can you think of others?

Pros

  • It is inescapable and so we should use it
  • It can be fun, inspiring, enriching
  • It empowers imagination
  • It allows us work on parts of the mind otherwise difficult to reach
  • It can be used as a teaching tool.  The miraculous aspect of the story helps us remember the main point — even if the miracle part is fictional/exaggerated.

Cons

  • It can be used to deceive, manipulate
  • It can give false hope
  • It can distract from correct, life saving options
  • It can make a person change their life to depend on lies which can end in great disappointment or disaster
  • It is tied with powerful emotions which are not open to dialogue or testing

So, what is the person who doesn’t believe in magic and miracles to do with these stories if they are from a tradition they value?  He is a list of options off the top of my head:

  1. Reinterpret the stories metaphorically.  Understand that they where rhetorical ploys to get deeper messages across.
  2. Assume that they are false but used to inspire people in a primitive culture where magic was (is) still needed credential to higher aims.
  3. Dismiss any teaching that contains them as pure nonsense.
  4. Use them in a lightly held way to work with one’s own mind while not buying into magic as a material force in the world.
  5. Remain “open minded” and still use the images for inspiration and working on their mind and allow that they still could happen.
People take various positions on these issues.  My experience has shown me that the positions people take depend largely on their temperament, their investment in the magical culture in which they are immersed and the charismatic influence of the people they trust.
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Notes:

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6 Comments

  1. Why don’t you just come out and tell us what you know, rather than playing games. Miracles happen for a reason – they are required at that place and time. Articles like this are written because the author is hiding something; they are elaborate expressions of the guilt of withholding. And it is evidence of cowardice; an inability to accept what they know is true and to express what they have learned in order to benefit others.

  2. Hello Jeff,
    I see by your Twitter and Blog that you are a Buddhist and an accomplished artist/composer — Fascinating. I am not trying to hide anything. I believe that very strange things can happen, but I do not believe in the supernatural and look for natural explanations for everything, including “miracles”. But I understand how other people take other positions. I am sorry that was not clear in the post — maybe I felt it was unneeded — but be assured, I am not the hiding type and not the guilty type either and few have accused me of cowardice. Thanx for dropping in.

  3. Sorry to come on so strong, it’s just been a very long road and to see another of these ‘What do YOU think…’ articles while thousands of people secretly debate the truths of these events is just messed up.

  4. @ Jeff
    So what is your position? You think miracles actually happen? What is “messed up”? What has been a “long road”?

  5. Max

    “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
    – Arthur C. Clarke

    Here I think we could substitute miracle for magic and the obvious extension of this is the idea that any phenomenon that is insufficiently understood is capable of being misinterpreted as a miracle. Essentially, if these two postulates are accepted, a miracle as defined as something that defies the laws of physics, does not exist. It’s always just a misinterpretation based on insufficient knowledge.

    That said, there are states of mind that are best described as miraculous or magical, but I think these are clearly not related to actual physical phenomena. A rainbow is clearly not a miracle in the first sense, but seeing one can indeed be a magical experience, or even colloquially – miraculous.

    I suspect that the root source of so-called miracles is in the emotional experience that accompanies the teachings of a highly charismatic leader – along with the inevitable exaggerations that the broken telephone of history introduces. There’s really no need to consider the possibility that any actual laws of physics were broken.

  6. @ Max
    I agree. No hand went through a rock, but the teaching from a charismatic teacher, exaggerated in by emotionally impressed disciples and later followers blossoms into a miracle story. Thanx for stopping in.

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