Saturday, June 6, 2009

Modernist embarassment and the paranormal in sacred texts

My friend, Mad Hatter, has had an interesting discussion happening over on his blog, Another Note. In the topic under discussion, Vipassana modernism and Protestatism, he has argued the presence of "Protestant themes" in the way Theravada Buddhism and Vipassana meditation practice are being adopted and developed in the West. It's an intersting discussion and I recommend you check it out.

What really struck me was Mad Hatter's observation that in Western Theravada/Vipassana "There is very strong aversion to any mention of the supernatural or paranormal** within the Buddhadhamma." In an asterisked footnote, Mad Hatter provides a favorite example of such paranormal tales

The Elder, it seems, went for alms into the village where his mother, a lay follower, lived. She gave him rice gruel and seated him in the sitting hall. The Elder sat down and attained cessation. While he was sitting there the hall caught fire. The other bhikkhus each picked up their seats and fled. The villagers gathered together, and seeing the Elder, they said "What a lazy monk!" The fire burned the grass thatch, the bamboos and timbers, and it encircled the Elder. People brought water and put it out. They removed the ashes, did repairs, scattered flowers, and then stood respectfully waiting. The Elder emerged at the time he had determined. Seeing them, he said "I am discovered!" and he rose into the air and went to Piyangu Island.
Mad Hatter then comments "The modernists/experientialists have to transform this into some sort of allegory or parable because they really don't believe that they will learn how to fly."

I'll let this comment hang for a moment becaue I have to admit I rather like this narrative too. Coincidentally at the same time I happened to check out Andrei Orlov's blog where I found a post on the desert fathers and mothers of early Christianity arguing continuities between the msyticism of early Christianity and Jewish mysticism of the turn of the era. I'm not going to go into Orlov's arguments here except to say they are worth reading. But was most intersting for me in light of Mad Hatter's post was that Orlov quotes a number of stories of paranormal experiences amongst those desert monks.

I want to quote some of them here.

Another time his disciple Zacharias entered and found him in ecstasy with his hands stretched towards heaven. Closing the door, he went away. Coming at the sixth and the ninth hours he found him in the same state. At the tenth hour he knocked, entered, and found him at peace and said to him, “What has happened today, Father?” The latter replied, “I was ill today, my child.” But the disciple seized his feet and said to him, “I will not let you go until you have told me what you have seen.” The old man said, “I was taken up to heaven h(rpa&ghn ei)j to_n ou)rano_n) and I saw the glory of God and I stayed till now and now I have been sent away” (Silvanus, 3).

The Fathers used to say that someone met Abba Silvanus one day and saw his face and body shining like an angel and he fell with his face to the ground. He said that others also had obtained this grace (Silvanus, 12).

There was a monk named Pambo and they said of him that he spent three years saying to God, “Do not glorify me on earth.” But God glorified him so that one could not gaze steadfastly at him because of the glory of his countenance (Pambo, 1).

They said of Abba Pambo that he was like Moses, who received the image of the glory of Adam when his face shone. His face shone like lightening and he was like a king sitting on his throne. It was the same with Abba Silvanus and Abba Sisoes (Pambo, 12).

Now the first account has a sort of resonance with Mad Hatter's tale of the monk who achieved cessation but the other stories describe something rather different but something quite familiar from the Christian scriptures, I refer of course to transfiguration. And I want to quote a further such account from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers page on the Coptic website

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, 'Abba as far as I can I say
my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as
far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?' then the old man
stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten
lamps of fire and he said to him, 'If you will, you can become all flame.'

Such stories are recounted in Western Christendom. Mad Hatter is right, I think, to highlight a strong Protestant suspicion of such accounts as a ruling mode in the culture, a mode strengthened by the semi-Protestantization of the Roman Church in the wake of Vatican 2. I think it's a fair thing to say that no one in Western Christendom expects to be transfigured as a result of living a Christian life of prayer. Not even the Pentecostals/Charismatics; well, at least, I've not seen any evidence of such experiences amongst the Pentecostals which is odd because God knows they can be all a twitter about a plethora of experiences. But then these transfiguration accounts are remarkable for the very prosaic way in which the event is recounted. They don't fit the Big E of experience that Mad Hatter has rightly identified as another cultural imperative of the West and one that is likewise impacting on Buddhism in all its forms as they become religions of the West. Transfiguration is not itself the goal of spiritual experience and it is not the definition of spiritual experience. It is instead an unveiling of a deeper spritual reality about a person's spiritual life.

So I want to turn now to one of my favorite Russian saints, Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833), because he is an excellent example of this fact. You can follow the links to get accounts of his life, and I recommend you do, but for now I want to quote from an account about Seraphim from the last years of his life by one of his pupils, Motovilov. They are discussing the purpose of the Christian life; Seraphim has explained that it is about acquiring the Holy Spirit. Motovilov is still unsatisfied and the narrative continues with him questioning Seraphim:

"Nevertheless," I replied, "I do not understand how I can be certain that I am in the Spirit of God. How can I discern for myself His true manifestation in me?"

Father Seraphim replied: "I have already told you, your Godliness, that it is very simple and I have related in detail how people come to be in the Spirit of God and how we can recognize His presence in us. So what do you want, my son?"

"I want to understand it well," I said.

Then Father Seraphim took me very firmly by the shoulders and said: "We are both in the Spirit of God now, my son. Why don't you look at me?"

I replied: "I cannot look, Father, because your eyes are flashing like lightning. Your face has become brighter than the sun, and my eyes ache with pain."

Father Seraphim said: "Don't be alarmed, your Godliness! Now you yourself have become as bright as I am. You are now in the fullness of the Spirit of God yourself; otherwise you would not be able to see me as I am."

Then, bending his head towards me, he whispered softly in my ear: "Thank the Lord God for His unutterable mercy to us! You saw that I did not even cross myself; and only in my heart I prayed mentally to the Lord God and said within myself: 'Lord, grant him to see clearly with his bodily eyes that descent of Thy Spirit which Thou grantest to Thy servants when Thou art pleased to appear in the light of Thy magnificent glory.' And you see, my son, the Lord instantly fulfilled the humble prayer of poor Seraphim. How then shall we not thank Him for this unspeakable gift to us both? Even to the greatest hermits, my son, the Lord God does not always show His mercy in this way. This grace of God, like a loving mother, has been pleased to comfort your contrite heart at the intercession of the Mother of God herself. But why, my son, do you not look me in the eyes? Just look, and don't be afraid! The Lord is with us!"After these words I glanced at his face and there came over me an even greater reverent awe. Imagine in the center of the sun, in the dazzling light of its midday rays, the face of a man talking to you. You see the movement of his lips and the changing expression of his eyes, you hear his voice, you feel someone holding your shoulders; yet you do not see his hands, you do not even see yourself or his figure, but only a blinding light spreading far around for several yards and illumining with its glaring sheen both the snow-blanket which covered the forest glade and the snow-flakes which besprinkled me and the great Elder. You can imagine the state I was in!
In this account not only is Seraphim transfigured but he passes it on to his pupil as well. Now in reading the account it's clear that while Motovilov is overwhelmed by the experience, for Seraphim, Motovilov is seeing him as he really is - as a way for Motovilov to likewise dwell in the Holy Spirit as a normal way of being. The transfiguration is actually an unveiling; it's not some sort of peak experience for Seraphim, although Motovilov is clearly in a state of surprised bliss, the purpose is not the experience of bliss but to be fully infused with the Spirit as a normal state. The other important feature of this event is that the unveiling is to Motovilov. If you or I or someone else had happened along at the time doubt that we would have seen anything other than a monk and his disciple although, no doubt, could have expanded the orbit of unveiling to include others as well.

Seraphim died a little under 180 years ago but he stands in continuity with those transfigured monks in the deserts of Egypt 1600 years ago. I don't think that there was a suspension of transfiguration in the eastern monasteries and convents in that period. Indeed I suspect that if one looked for it one could find an ongoing tradition of transfiguration in the monasteries and convents of the Middle East, Ethiopia, Russia, Egypt, the Caucasus and the Balkans.

And outside of Christianity transfiguration accounts are found in Hinduism ( I knew a woman in Melbourne many years ago who experienced the transfiguration of her guru with whom she lived for many years as a disciple in India), Tibetan Buddhism and Shamanic religions.

And we learn from Orlov that transfiguration is very much an important trajectory within biblical traditions and may likewise be a hallmark of ancient Judaism (and maybe of anceint Middle Eastern relgious expereince as a whole) :

One can see that the traditions identical or similar to those found in Ex 33 or 2 Enoch 22 and 39 may have exercised a formative influence on the later Jewish and Christian theophanic currents comparable to those found in the Apophthegmata Patrum. The early desert fathers too were privileged to receive a vision of the divine Form and, as a result, underwent the glorious transformation of their countenances and bodies. One encounters the same luminous metamorphosis in 2 Enoch where the body and face of seventh antediluvian hero is depicted as covered with light.Like in the accounts of the desert fathers who were glorified by the divine presence, in the Slavonic apocalypse the luminous metamorphosis of the seer takes place in front of the Lord’s glorious “Extent” labeled in 2 Enoch as God’s Face. In 2 Enoch 22 the vision of the divine Face has dramatic consequences for Enoch’s appearance. The patriarch’s body endures radical changes as it becomes covered with the divine light. This encounter transforms Enoch into a glorious angelic being “like one of the glorious ones, and there was no observable difference.”

This phrase describes Enoch’s transition to a new celestial identity as “one of the glorious ones.”

Similar to the accounts of the ascetics in the Sayings of the Fathers, the Slavonic apocalypse also hints to the glorification of the patriarch’s countenance. Thus, in 2 Enoch 37, similarly to the divine Countenance, Enoch’s face acquires a degree of luminosity that poses danger for ordinary creatures of flesh and blood. In 2 Enoch 37 the Deity must call one of his special angelic servants to chill Enoch’s face before his return to earth. The angel, who “appeared frigid,” then chilled Enoch’s face with his icy hands. Immediately after this procedure, the Deity tells Enoch that, if his face had not been chilled, no human being would have been able to look it. The chilling procedure indicates that Enoch’s metamorphosis near the Face involves the transformation of his human face into a fiery, dangerous entity that now resembles the Kavod. These strange rituals surrounding the seer’s face bring to memory the familiar biblical traditions of Moses’ luminous countenance and his protective veil.

Which brings me to the transfiguration accounts in the gospels (Matthew 17: 1-9, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36). Once I became aware how common transfiguration experiences were in a variety of religions, it struck me that the transfiguration of Jesus was most likely based on an actual event (or events). Does that mean that if you or I were passing by at the time we would have seen and heard what Peter, James and John were seeing and hearing? Probably not. But, like Seraphim, I'm sure Jesus would have been able to expand the orbit of his unveiling for us mere passers-by to witness his glory too.

And I wonder if, like Moses, the High Priests coming out/down from the Holy of Holies were understood to be and even perceived to be transfigured, c.f. Sirach 50: 5-11.

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