Buddhism & the supernatural

You might be forgiven for wondering about whether Buddhism is a religion. After all, there are plenty of people who say that “Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion”. When I say plenty, that’s 73,300 on a google for the exact phrase. Personally i think this is just a piece of modernist sloganeering. Buddhism obviously fills most of the same roles in Buddhists’ lives that other religions fulfill, and in every practical sense it is regarded as a religion everywhere. Of course, it’s a different kind of religion than theistic ones, which necessitates rethinking what we mean by a religion.

But if we take this seriously, Buddhism would not fall under the status of a religion for charity purposes in Australia (and many other places). The relevant Australian definition says there is:

… no reason to move away from the decision made by the High Court in the Scientology case, that a religion must have two characteristics: belief in a supernatural Being, Thing or Principle; and that there is an acceptance of canons of conduct that give effect to that belief by some part of the community. No submission suggested a different definition of religion.

This is curious to me on a number of levels. First up, i wonder whether Buddhism should fall under this definition. In fact, I would say that I definitely think Buddhism does not believe in the supernatural as it is normally understood – a statement which, however, needs some clarification.

The other curious thing is, why on earth does believing in a Supernatural being justify getting special consideration? I am sympathetic to the radical atheist view, which could argue that, since belief in the supernatural is manifestly irrational, money given to believers is rewarding irrationality.

Of course, religious people do good things, such as giving to charities. But that is not the issue here. Secular organizations can give to charities just as well, and the government can award them charitable status for their good works, not because of a belief in the ‘Supernatural’.

This problem could have very practical implications. Buddhist who applied for charitable status might not get it; or, conceivably, Buddhism could be attacked by hostile forces on these legal grounds.

What does ‘Supernatural’ mean? One definition says ‘not existing in nature or subject to explanation according to natural laws’, which seems fair enough to me. When people use the word ‘supernatural’, they usually mean things like psychic powers, ghosts, other realms of existence, and so on. It’s obvious that Buddhists believe in these things just as much as any religion.

It’s true that there are a few Buddhists, who we might call ‘naturalist’, who deny the reality of these phenomena. But there are also a minority of Christians or others who would take a similar line.Personally, I don’t think it’s possible to meaningfully interpret the Buddha’s teachings in a way that excludes rebirth; however, I would not want to say that someone who denies rebirth cannot be a Buddhist.

However, from a legal point of view, if one was a Buddhist who denied the reality of, say, rebirth, or other aspects of Buddhism that are not scientifically verifiable, could one be said to be following a ‘religion’ in this sense?

The problem is, it seems to me, deeper than this. The very notion of ‘Supernatural’ is one that, it seems to me, arises from Western philosophical assumptions. the basic idea is that there is ‘this world’, which is rational and subject to explanation according to the laws of physics, and the ‘other world’, which operates according to a quite different set of principles, and where the laws of physics no longer apply.

In Buddhism, however, the essential description of the world is not provided by the laws of physics, or other material phenomena. The most important ‘laws’ are the three characteristics – impermanence, suffering, not-self. And these describe any other state of being just as well as they describe ours. For theistic religions, ‘heaven’ is eternal – that is, not subject to conditions, and independent from Time. But for Buddhists, heaven is just as temporary as anything else.

The Sri Lankan philosopher David Kalupahana has developed this idea in detail. he argues that Buddhism is empirical through and through; that even those aspects of Buddhist belief that seem to invoke the ‘supernatural’ in fact merely involve a refining and extension of ordinary sensory capacities. Thus the ability to see beings in other realms is the ‘Divine Eye’, which results, not from the intervention of a force beyond nature, but from the refinement of the mind through the practice of jhana.

In fact, the translation ‘Divine Eye’ is maybe a bit misleading in this context, as there is no notion of divine intervention. The Pali is dibbacakkhu, where dibba is an adjective related to deva, or deity, hence the rendering. But the root meaning of all these terms, still felt very strongly in the Pali, is to ‘shine’, related to the word ‘day’. So it would perhaps be better to think of this power as ‘clarified vision’ – which is exactly the English ‘clairvoyance’.

So, while many of the things that are called ‘supernatural’ do form a part of regular Buddhist belief, I don’t think the word ‘supernatural’ is an appropriate description of these things from a Buddhist point of view. This is more than a semantic issue, for the very Buddhist critique of the ‘supernatural’ forms an integral part of our soteriology. We may believe in these things, but we don’t regard them as being essential or important for our religious path, precisely because they fall within the realm of birth, ageing, and death; that is, they are natural.

The problem is a historical one: definitions of religion in Western law are not supposed to be philosophically precise, but pragmatically effective. They are supposed to deal with the legacy situation that governments are supposed to offer various kinds of support for religions for the common good, and to deal with upstarts like Scientology, who quite cynically try to leverage this support for their own advantage.

Which brings us to the question: why on earth should governments be interested in giving tax breaks or other support to religions anyway? It seems to me there are two main reasons. From the government’s point of view, the interest is in ‘social cohesion’. Religions help keep the fabric of society together. There is an ancient strain, which, depending on your point of view, might be called either pragmatism or cynicism, which runs back to the Greco-Roman days, where people who don’t really believe in the gods still insist that the cults and the festivals be upheld. This is a perfectly legitimate interest that government has, and if the people in government believe that religion does, on the whole, help keep society harmonious, then it is perfectly rational for even atheists to support religion.

From inside the religion itself, however, while social cohesion would be a valued part of religion’s contribution, it does not capture the critical point. Religions believe that they offer something that has a value that transcends anything found on this mortal coil. The benefits offered by religion are not just charity and social harmony, but an eternity of transcendence. And it is this special value that religionists believe sets them apart from any secular philosophy, not matter how good its social ethics may be.

This assumption of transcendant value is impossible to accommodate within secular discourse. How do you weigh up a saved soul against improved health care? And there is the ticklish problem that most religions understanding of the transcendent excludes followers of other religions… But we should not forget that a majority of the people in government actually believe in some such doctrine as this, whether or not it influence their decisions.

Come back to the root meaning of ‘supernature’: literally, ‘above or beyond what is born’. There is only one thing that might fit this description in Buddhism, and that is Nibbana. Nibbana is quite literally ‘beyond birth’. It is not ‘supernatural’ in the everyday understanding of the word, but it is supernatural according to the root meaning.

This is still not ideal, and is a stretch of Western theistic ideas into a context where they fit uncomfortably. If this ruling were to be reviewed, i would suggest using a word such as ‘Deathless’, or ‘Unconditioned’, which would suit Nibbana just as it would a theistic God.

It is more problematic to describe Nibbana as a ‘Being, Thing or Principle’. Nevertheless, while philosophically we might quibble, these words are obviously meant to be so general as to encompass just about anything, so in this context I think we could let them pass.

So in the end I think Buddhist scrapes by: it is a religion under Australian law. I understand that this is not the case in some other countries; perhaps some of you have some knowledge of this.

62 thoughts on “Buddhism & the supernatural

  1. The definition of ‘religion’ is highly contested in academic circles, but in this case I think it is important to note that the term itself developed AFTER Xianity came into vogue. Max Mueller notes that what we now call ‘religion’ was nearly always, in ancient times, referred to as a ‘rule’ or ‘law’ or other word meaning ‘behavioral guide’, rather than ‘belief system’. In fact, St Augustine refers to Xianity as a ‘disciplina’ in his writings, and not ‘religio’, which more often denoted an attitude of reverence or piety. I think to this extent the Vinaya stands alongside ‘traditional religions’ on equal footing.

    As the Australian legal definition: perhaps the Vinaya could be framed in terms of adherence to an appropriate gnosis of abhidhammic ‘dhammas’ (as a function of Right View), thereby fulfilling both aspects of the legal demand.

    • Hi David,

      Your first para is very interesting – and certainly puts a different perspective on theings. i wonder how that shift of emphasis to religion as ‘belief’ came about?

      Your second para – sorry, i don’t get it. Could you explain a little more for us?

  2. In my opinion, in its beginning Xianity defined itself in contrast to Judaism, then Roman law, and later Islam. It also had to continually define itself as the orthodox position against early Xian heresies (the Marcionites, the Gnostics, and others). So, when Protestant Xianity first undertook the Victorian exploration of worldwide religiosity it did so with orthodoxy as the essential element of comparison, not orthopraxy – after all, Xian Communion may look roughly the same one place to another, but differences in the meaning of transubstantiation are taken to be the sort of differences that can endanger one’s everlasting soul. (Note that the academic study of religion arose out of the Victorian project of showing how Xianity was the perfect iteration of religion, all others approaching this perfection to greater or lesser degrees.)

    The second paragraph is an attempt at some legal shenanigans – the Theravada tradition can’t really trot out a Mahayana Bodhisattva at this juncture, so I was playing with other candidates.

    Here is a Ph.D. thesis from the U of Tech in Sydney which sees the shortcomings of the legal definition you’ve been provided and seeks to develop a better one, which it then applies to Taoism, Marxism and Freemasonry as a test.

    I found this paper by googling the terms ‘australian legal definition supernatural’, and it was the first option. This blog is the second! =)

    • David Mead :
      The second paragraph is an attempt at some legal shenanigans – the Theravada tradition can’t really trot out a Mahayana Bodhisattva at this juncture, so I was playing with other candidates.

      The Dhammakaya, perhaps…

    • Sylvester

      You may think David is playing, but I have seen serious attempts to align the Trinity and the Trikaya: the Dharmakaya = God the Father; the Nirmanakaya = Christ the Son; the Sambhogakaya = the Holy Spirit. Sometimes it makes a kind of poetic sense to me. At other times it looks like contrived confused syncretism.

      Don’t think it would get round that Australian legal definition though, which does seem too narrowly drawn to me.


    • Dear David

      Yes, I did think David was jesting, thus the affectionate affectation a la Austin Powers.

      Funny you should mention the Trikaya. I’ve been attempting in the last few months to persuade my Yogacara friends to buy into my thesis that the Trikaya is not an ontological model. It’s simply a didactic model to illustrate Trisvabhava as a perceptual process. They are having none of my nonsense of course…

    • Holy Trinity vs Triple Gems:

      God the Father = truth = Dhamma;

      Christ the Son = Buddha ;

      the Holy Spirit = Buddha Nature within = Sangha (us)


  3. Seems to me that Buddhism is full of the supernatural … ie whats rebirth and 31 or 32 planes of existence!if not supernatural……

    Anyway I accept the Buddhas teachings but I also believe in a God or a creator. From what Ive read the Buddha didnt say there wasn’t a God only that he could not find IT

    If I understand Buddhist teaching everything has a cause or set of causes. I figure it all got started somehow.

    Actually the more I think about it, that i am here writing this is pretty supernatural within itself if one considers that chain of events to this precise point in time 🙂

    ps I think quantum physics will give the materialists their answers and they will realise that the super-naturalists were right all the time!!

    • Consider the following:

      It was once considered a supernatural feat to determine the color of, say, a piece of paper solely by touch, and many people denied the possibility.

      Research was conducted which compared the temperature differences caused by Paper A being red and Paper B being blue. The difference is very small, but measurable, and more importantly, the difference is detectable by human tactile nerves. This proved that determining color by touch was, with training, completely possible under natural laws.

      As soon as this happened, determining color by touch was moved from ‘supernatural’ to ‘natural’, yet nothing had changed except our knowledge. So, it is important to note that supernatural is really just a catch-all for the extremities of our understanding.

      Certainly, I would say most claims about the supernatural are completely bogus because they do not have natural referents, but as this example shows, this isn’t always the case. Perhaps more importantly: it is impossible for something to be supernatural if it can be shown to abide by natural laws.

      It’s a heavily loaded word, and to this extent Dania’s comment that “The obvious solution is that Australia must change their definition” is completely accurate.

    • Dear Bill,
      I am with you on the reconciling of “God” and the teachings of the Buddha. I do not claim perfect undertsanding but I do think it is of value to share with Dhamma friends where we are at on the path, so here goes.
      When Rumi or Jesus or Muhammad or people of faiths speak of God, there are myriad ways of understanding that arise. When one tries to pin any practitioner of these faiths down to define what God is or what their experience of God is, one gets just as many explanations and sometimes none at all. At times it encompasses many of the things we learn through the Dhamma all rolled into one. I enjoy Thay’s teachings because he often draws references to God and shows that what we are experiencing is the same – just semantics (which we give TOO much power to).
      Yet, with this faith that faith or no faith I can still experience the divine. Sometimes it is the experience of interbeing, interconnectedness with the universe, the dissolution of the sense of separation; sometimes it is an expansion of my human experience beyond previous boundaries, sometimes it is dwelling in joy, sometimes it is dwelling in spaciousness. At times we may well be experiencing awareness of invisible beings in our midst or small miracles that simply should not have happened without some kind of intervention! (Like the spider experienced as I rescued him from the bathwater)
      I can give a specific example: There is a Christian practice that encourages practitioners who hold a grudge or mourning or sadness, the “give it to God.” The experience of this is very powerful. Essentially what it is is “letting go.” The notion that there is someone there to receive it may be illusory – or helpful – depending on your concept of the receiver. But the result is, you let go. We could go on about the finer points.. but that is for another blog…
      This belief in God was very challenging to give up when I shifted to the Buddha’s Dhamma – as my experience of it gave me great faith and confidence and I had very beneficicial practices which do not get imediately replaced when one begins a new path. Losing this can be very challenging psychologically (as HHDL and Buddhadasa have many times suggested). I gave it up for a while and then I kept hearing my experience of God coming up in the Dhamma teachings, just in different words. That for me is the strength and the weakness of the Dhamma-we are encouraged to move away from conceptualizing, and yet, the teaching is a bombardment of conceptualizations. My old experience of God was freer, and losing that was rough. I think it is coming full circle slowly but surely…and I have gained much by expanding my awareness, understanding and practice in other ways…
      As for the “creation” aspect, I have more difficulty with this since time and space are constructs of this human mind – dependent on this body mind. (although – according to the Buddhist cosmology – are there not beings in one of the heavens whose sole pleasure is creation? and would it not be feasible that they pass through or impact this realm on occasion?) I believe in the possibility that time is beginningless, and the concept of creation it seems to me is time dependent. Existence arises out of conditions coming together and dying in form only to morph into another (I like the transformation of stars as a coarse example – the cycle just never seems to end – there is never death just morphing from one form to the next) With these beginners eyes it is difficult to believe in a “creation” point, because I see endless arising and passing away of all around me including mind. That does not mean I do not believe in God. But I continue to try to keep this belief free from limitations.
      (Was that confusing?)

    • Ahaha! As I write this a massive hailstorm appears out of the blue sky and a lightning bolt on the field next door. Ahaha! 🙂 (I am not kidding 🙂

    • And now massive rainbow. 🙂 It is hard not to reach beyond, in this terrfying and beautiful realm 🙂

    • Thanks for this beautiful little nest of posts, Lisa Karuna. I can identify with your sense that you are coming full-circle (like a rainbow that continues below the horizon) – rediscovering your earlier connection to the divine through your Buddhist practice, and starting to sense that there is a strong connection – perhaps that you are treading one path through different traditions, rather than two paths that never meet, or demand that you definitively choose one or the other.

      Having practiced Buddhism for the last dozen years or so, I have recently found it leading me to an appreciation of and sense of connection to Christianity that was not possible for me earlier. Partly this has been through seeing how similar the contemplative traditions in Buddhism and Christianity are – the part of each that connects us to the “supernatural,” you might say, if supernatural is taken to mean not something outside of nature, but the parts of it that strike us as strange and wonderful and awesome.

    • Juzzeau,
      You reminded me of a book I brought years ago called “Sadhana” by Anthony de Mello, a Jesuit priest. In his book he integrates Eastern contemplation and insight into a Christian practise. A “Divine” read 🙂

    • Hi Lisa

      I enjoyed reading your post and can see much of my own experience in it.

      I suppose for me God is not form but the intelligent consciousness that sustains and maintains all universes and levels of existence and is part of and permeates every particle in existence 🙂 and maybe when we obtain Nibbana we are ready to be inducted:-)

    • This resonates with me and I am grateful that you shared this. And Nibbana is within us here and now, ready whenever we are. Ha!

    • Dear Lisa

      Thanks so much for this post. I was brought up as a Roman Catholic and the teaching of Jesus always resonated with me from a very young age, but the whole Creator God / Virgin Birth / Resurrection thing (the teaching ABOUT Jesus) never made much sense to me or even seemed that important. Since it seemed important to other Catholics I ended up not being one (although the Catholics do say you can never be an ex-Catholic, just a bad one).

      When I started practicing the Buddhadhamma I started to understand Jesus’s teaching, especially the Parables, in a much deeper way and could even make some sense of the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection even the Trinity, as symbols of some experiences in the dhamma. I guess in Thanissara’s terms (in her “Burden of Denial” post) I’m more of a “down and through” practitioner than an “up and out” one, so I find the idea of the Incarnation (literally “getting into the meat”) is meaningful. In some sense it could describe satipatthana.

      (I’ve just smelt burning. It seems that we shall have slightly toasted lentil soup this evening).

      We recently had our niece staying with us for a year who is a committed Pentecostal Christian (for those who don’t know, think Gospel music, raised hands and loud hallelujahs – not meditative). Every night she prays and says thank you for what she has received during the day, and asks for good to happen to a whole list of people. I have no idea who she is talking to, but in my terms she is developing powerful metta. She possesses, or perhaps I should say is possessed by, a kind of relentless goodwill and has taught me a lot in that vein.

      I still cannot make sense of a Creator God though, certainly not literally and not even as a symbol.



    • Yes yes to this and to Bill and Juzzeau and Anne…your observation of your niece’s experience is very important. My pre-Buddha Dhamma practices were very beneficial – I experienced much joy, faith, gratitude and awareness that flowed through that. What Juzzeau says is so important – one path through different traditions – this is true – and it is key for us as Buddhists to interfaith understanding and communication – as HHDL and Buddhadasa might say, don’t yank someone from away from a practice that is working – often as Buddhists I find we think our way is the best and only way – which works if you are a Buddhist! Or ready to make a change…and we are not supposed to teach unless we are asked to teach, I believe for this reason…
      Part of my reconciliation process has been to look more keenly for the 8-fold path in other faiths (sila, samadhi, panna). Anne – I wonder if you know about father Thomas Keating – Benedictine monk who teaches centering prayer – a Christian contemplative practice akin to concentration and insight – have just discovered this and plan to attend a session this week just to get a sense of it.
      I have made a few small pilgrimages to Benedictine monasteries and early Christian monastic sites – in hopes to better understand the historical relationship we have with renunciation as a way of life…and understand why I am so drawn to it…
      In my first years exploring the Buddhadhamma, I had a very similar experience to David and others in which I practically fell in love with Christ – I became grateful as never before to his life and teachings and Christmas meant so much more – celebrating the joy of receiving a such a blessed teacher among us…
      I guess I need to go to divinity school and more deeply into the Buddha’s teachings before I believe any religion is in practice, in people’s minds and experience truly “theistic” and that Buddhists truly comparatively, point for point do not share very similar experiences in their living the Dhamma…

  4. David Mead :
    Here is a Ph.D. thesis from the U of Tech in Sydney which sees the shortcomings of the legal definition you’ve been provided and seeks to develop a better one, which it then applies to Taoism, Marxism and Freemasonry as a test.

    This was a great pointer – I just skim read it but as a Buddhist and a Freemason I found it fascinating.

  5. The obvious solution is that Australia must change their definition.

    The common thing between religions is giving purpose to life. For Buddhists, the purpose of living is to train the mind and practice the Eightfold path that will lead to happiness and freedom from suffering. It requires a bit of faith in the beginning for someone to start practicing morality, restraint, meditation and learning right view. So perhaps it is this initial faith and purpose of existence that makes Buddhism a religion.

    It is also very easy to get caught up with little details or aspects of some traditions. We must keep focus on the main teachings of the Buddha. The reason why the Buddha became so respected and popular is because he taught the way out of suffering: Eightfold path is the way to ultimate happiness: Nibbana, 4 noble truths and Annica, Dukkha, Annata.

    Also all this is not supernatural but can be verifiable through experience. Through the practice of the Eightfold Path.

    Also we have to be very careful about equating Nibbana with a thing since Nibbana is cessation. Nothing supernatural about cessation. Nothing supernatural about a candle blowing out. Cessation of existence and self is the ultimate happiness, perhaps that requires faith in the beginning.

    Lastly, a little note to Bill: Dear Bill, Buddha clearly denies an ultimate “Creator God” since he taught Annata: that there is no ultimate self, essence or Being. Even “God”, if there is one, has no essence. God is impermanent and when he ceases, it’s happiness.

  6. Dear Bill,

    Baka Brahma suffered from the delusional notion that he was a creator god, omnipotent and all knowing. His pernicious view was cured by the Buddha, as recounted with gentle humor in Jataka 405.

    Buddha told this story at Jetavana Monastery about Baka Brahma.
    In a previous birth Baka Brahma had practiced meditation and was reborn in the Vehapphala Heaven. After staying there for five hundred kappas, he was reborn in the Subhakinna Heaven. After sixty-four kappas there, he was reborn in the Abhassara Heaven, where the lifespan is eight kappas. While he was there, he forgot that he had been born in and passed away from those higher Brahma heavens. He came to believe, “This is permanent, this is stable, this is eternal, this is complete, this is imperishable. Indeed, this is where one is not born, does not age, does not die, does not pass away, and is not reborn; and there is no other escape superior to this.”
    One day, Buddha became aware of Baka Brahma’s mistaken and pernicious view, and, just as easily as a strong man can straighten his bent arm, Buddha disappeared from Jetavana and appeared in that Brahmaloka, called Abhassara Heaven.
    When Baka Brahma saw Buddha, he greeted him warmly. “Come here, my Lord!” Baka Brahma said. “Welcome, my Lord. It is a long time since you have taken an opportunity to visit. This is permanent, this is stable, this is eternal, this is complete, this is imperishable. Indeed, this is where one is not born, does not age, does not die, does not pass away, and is not reborn; and there is no other escape superior to this.”
    “Baka Brahma has become ignorant!” Buddha replied. “It is ignorance which leads him to say that a thing which is not permanent is permanent, that a thing which is not stable is stable, that a thing which is not eternal is eternal, that a thing which is not complete is complete, that a thing which is not imperishable is imperishable. It is ignorance which leads him to say that one is not born where one is born, that one does not age where one ages, that one does not die where one dies, that one does not pass away where one passes away, that one is not reborn where one is reborn. It is ignorance which leads him to say that there is no other escape superior to this.”
    When Baka Brahma heard this, he thought, “This one presses me hard. He pins me down and holds me to exactly what I say!” Then, like a thief, who, when caught red-handed, tries to excuse himself by naming others just as guilty, he declared, “There are seventy-two of us, O Gotama. We are righteous and great, from birth and aging we are free. This heaven of ours is eternal, and there is nothing above. Indeed, there are many who share this view.”
    “Actually, Baka,” Buddha corrected him, “your existence in this world has been short, not long! On the other hand, you have experienced various existences in many other realms, and those extending more than a hundred thousand kappas into the past, are all well known to me.”
    “Gotama!” Baka Brahma exclaimed, trying to maintain his self-esteem. “I am infinite, and my wisdom is infinite. I am untouched by birth, aging, and sorrow. All those changeable things lie far beneath me. Nevertheless, if you know something that I should know, please tell me.”
    Then Buddha revealed to him the events of the past through which he had gained rebirth in the Brahma heavens.

    “Once, there was a caravan stranded in the desert. You saved all those people dying of thirst by diverting a river into that desert. This was your virtuous practice long ago. I remember it as if just waking from a dream.
    “On another occasion, while staying near a village on the banks of the River Eni, you discovered that the village was under attack by a gang of thieves. You created the illusion of a troop of royal soldiers, which drove away the thieves. Then you set free the villagers who had been tied up by the gang. This was your virtuous practice long ago. I remember it as if just waking from a dream.
    “On another occasion, there was a boat on the River Ganges, filled with people. A mighty Naga seized the boat and threatened to devour all the passengers. You rescued all those people by assuming the form of a great Garuda and chasing away that Naga. This was your virtuous practice long ago. I remember it as if just waking from a dream.
    “You were the ascetic Kesava, and I was your brightest student, Kappa. I remember all these virtuous deeds of yours as if just waking from a dream. Because of them, for many kappas, you have enjoyed the glory and majesty of birth in these Brahma Heavens.”
    Baka Brahma expressed great gratitude to Buddha for revealing to him his deeds in previous existences. Then Buddha expounded the Truths and ten thousand brahmas achieved insight. Thus, did Buddha become the refuge for a multitude of gods.
    After returning to Jetavana, Buddha identified the birth: “At that time Baka Brahma was the ascetic Kesava, and I was his wise student Kappa.”

    • Thanks Visakha i liked the reading.

      For me I see the universe like this the Buddhas world/universe is inside creation the 31/2 levels of existence….and subject to time……..God is outside creation looking in and not subject to time…..and thats where nibbana takes us…….the Buddha could never find God because IT?HE ?She was never where he looked ….

    • I would be so careful not to pronounce judgements on people’s belief in God. It is an experience that is different for everybody. To say that one person is speaking of Brahma or anything – we just cannot speak for the other person’s experience. As I mentioned previously it is also a very fragile part of the human psyche for people who do.
      Caution, please, Dear Friends. 🙂

    • So true Lisa Karuna. I have heard people describe their blissful experiences of peace, light, joy, or boundless love, during meditation as seeing, touching or even experiencing “God”.
      I just think it’s great they’re feeling that way…doesn’t matter what they call it 🙂

  7. Hi Bill. God is impermanent and subject to cessation. Nibbana is not a place nor a being nor a plane. Nibbana means cessation. The same as a flame going out – it nibbanas. It goes out. There is nothing outside of the 5 khandas not even God. That’s why Buddha described everything in terms of the 5 khandas. Nothing outside. Everything that exists, including God can cease.

    • Dania

      Hmm God is impermanent and subject to cessation…But the universe as we inhabit isn’t……….it continues forever aeon after aeon expansion and collapse continuously the ultimate form of sustainability!……..I would say that the universe and everything is permanent..with only the “form” being impermanent. From my understanding of physics the universe is pure energy and may be only one of billions.

      I would therefore say to you that the universe is permanent it just chnages”form” . We experience the arising and falling away of form but the underlying nature……ie pure energy never changes….consider how many times you and I along with everything else in every level of existence has been recycled.

      I also understand that nibbana does not mean the end but something outside and beyond this realm we are trapped in for we surely are trapped in something……..I think its time, our experience is defined by time ruled by time measured by time…Nibbana as i see it is something outside of time ….sure its the end but maybe its the end of time…..I cant help feeling that’s where God is outside of time and this creation we are conscious of.

      I cant help but getting the vision of a sea of bubbles each one a universe floating in a vast sea of timelessness expanding meging collapsing :-)endlessly


    • Bill, what you think Nibbana is, is not what the Buddha teaches. It’s best not to spread your views if they are not founded on the Buddha’s teachings.

      Buddha gave that famous candle simile: where does the candle go after it blows out? to the east, west ? It just goes out. MN 72.
      Also, similarly to your idea of eternal universe: Someone asked the Buddha if the cosmos is eternal and Buddha said ‘no’. So we can’t say that there is something outside of existence or cosmos being eternal. The ocean can disappear too!

      But don’t worry since when it does disappear it’s happiness- take that on faith from the Buddha and all the noble ones:) AN 9.34 Nibbana is happiness!

      Another fire going out reference:
      Ratana Sutta “Those wise go out just as this lamp”. Snp 2.1 So when we do go out, there is nothing left, the same way as nothing is left of the flame after it goes out.

      Another neat one about cessation of consciousness:(Sammaditthi sutta on right view). “When, friends, a noble disciple understands consciousness, the origin of consciousness, the cessation of consciousness, and the way leading to the cessation of consciousness, in that way he is one of right view… and has arrived at this true Dhamma.”

    • My understanding is that the Buddha wanted us to question everything……I am not convinced that everything attributed to the Buddha actually came from him and anyway i am not convinced that he was always right…..he certainly got it wrong on teh life of the Sangha did he not?

      I will take my course until I can shown to be wrong and it wont be words written in ancient text…..but my own experience.

      I cant help think that the flame out simile is a doctrine of annihilation……

    • The Four Dhamma Summaries

      The world is swept away.
      It does not endure.

      The world offers no shelter.
      There is no one in charge.

      The world has nothing of its own.
      One has to pass on, leaving everything behind.

      The world is insufficient, insatiable,
      A slave to craving.
      – Majjhima Nikaya 82

    • Well done! Visakha.
      But do you know this as well:

      Sabba sankhaara anicca’ti yada pannaya passati…
      Sabbe sankhaara dukkha…
      Sabbe Dhamma anatta’ti
      Yada pannaya passati
      Adhinibbandati dukkhe
      Esa maggo visuddhiya.

  8. On another note, just as I was reading the Udana, a nice passage came up that supports our bhikkhuni sangha. It would be nice to share:

    Buddha says to Mara “I will not attain final Nibbana, Evil One, until my bhikkhuni disciples are wise, disciplined, confident, attained to security from bondage, learned, experts in Dhamma, practising according to Dhamma, practising the proper way, living by following Dhamma; nor until, after learning it from their own teachers, they will be able to announce, teach, declare, establish, reveal, expound, and explain it to others; nor until, refuting with Dhamma the arisen theories of others, they will be able to teach Dhamma that is convincing.” (Udana 6.1) Then Mara goes on to say that the Lord’s bhikkhuni disciples have already accomplished all that.

    It’s a nice passage which supports the development of our current bhikkhuni sangha.

    • Dear Dania

      Thanks for citing this passage from the Udana. When we last discussed this resolution by the Buddha, all of us relied on the same passage from the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, DN 16. Now, we have another record of it in the Udana.

      And for another canonical source of the same event and resolution, there’s SN 51.10, sutta No 10 in the Iddhipadasamyutta of the Samyutta Nikaya.

      At least 3 instances of the Buddha’s RESOLUTION to establish the bhikkhuni order are recorded in the Canon, versus one alleged PROPHECY of decline in the Culavagga. Looks like a pretty clear numbers game to me…

      Incidentally, the account in SN 51.10 does not mention the Ajapala Tree as the setting of the Buddha’s resolution.

    • That’s great Sylvester.
      Good point!

      3 vs 1: This is an important observation that would discredit the prophecy.

    • Ahh yes. Is that the Sutta which the Commentaries took the opportunity to say that the Garudhammas ensured that the Sassana would endure 5,000 years instead of 500?

      I wonder if the Commentaries ever attempted to explain the inconsistency between the resolution on the 4-fold Assembly and the 500 year decline?

  9. The other curious thing is, why on earth does believing in a Supernatural being justify getting special consideration? I am sympathetic to the radical atheist view, which could argue that, since belief in the supernatural is manifestly irrational, money given to believers is rewarding irrationality.

    While most of you chose to answer the question of the definition of supernatural and how it refers to the Buddhist teaching I find Bhante’s other question even more intriguing.
    As one of our guests in the monastery said one evening – so if I say that I believe a pink lady in the sky to be my saviour would that make me eligible for tax exemption?
    Not only that – by that definition then, the belief in the existence of UFO or that wearing semi precious stones around your neck or wrist will keep you form harm, among other ideas – all fall under the category of belief in the supernatural – does that make these doctrines religions? And would they qualify for tax exemptions?

    Bhante’s answer that governments do it for the sake of ‘social cohesion’ doesn’t really add up for me. It might sound true enough in countries like Israel to Jewish organisations or Iran to Islamic ones but Australia treats all religions the same. Even those whose followers are not exactly friendly to one another like Muslims and Jews – which seems to me contradictory to an attitude supportive of social cohesion.
    In fact in Israel, Buddhist refrain from referring to Buddhism as religious because not only they will not be exempt from anything they would probably not even be allowed to exist! For particularly that reason Goenka strongly emphasises the secular orientation of his meditation centres.
    As for the reason Religions themselves give for that right- I find it completely irrelevant.

    The benefits offered by religion are not just charity and social harmony, but an eternity of transcendence. And it is this special value that religionists believe sets them apart from any secular philosophy, not matter how good its social ethics may be.

    That might be so, however tax exemption and government money is very much part of that same secular philosophy which religious organisations very happily embrace.

    Why does Australia give so much autonomy to religions? Not only by tax exemptions but also exemption from anti- discriminatory laws.
    Personally I find it puzzling…………
    ayya citta

  10. Those who wax poetic about the vagararies of the “transcendent” might recall that the Buddha taught suffering and the end of suffering. Subtle mystical feelins are just more refined than gross physical feelings and perhaps harder to overcome.

    Those in Australia might like to join the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM) and see if it qualifies as a religion under your law.

    Flying Spaghetti Monster is the deity of the parody religion (see examples of the religious art on Wikipedia or their own website 😉 The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or Pastafarianism was created in 2005 by Oregon State physics graduate Bobby Henderson and intended as a satirical protest against the decision by the Kansas State Board of Education to require the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in public schools. In an open letter sent to the Kansas State Board of Education, Henderson parodied the concept of intelligent design by professing belief in a supernatural creator which closely resembles spaghetti and meatballs. Henderson further called for his “Pastafarian” theory of creation to be allotted equal time in science classrooms alongside intelligent design and evolution. He explained that since the intelligent design movement uses ambiguous references to an unspecified “Intelligent Designer”, any conceivable entity may fulfill that role, even a Flying Spaghetti Monster. After Henderson published the letter on his website, it rapidly became an internet phenomenon and a symbol for the case against intelligent design in public schools.

    If there aren’t already Pastafarians in Australia there should be!

    • Vishaka

      Thank you for bringing us back to earth with the timely reminder about the first two noble truths.

      Of course every right-minded person knows that Pastafarianism is just a made up story. The creator of the universe who must be worshipped and obeyed is an invisible pink unicorn called Trixie. Here is a picture of her:

      Only those with the clear eye of faith can see her. She is also inaudible, untouchable, has no scent and is untasteable, and even to think about trying to do so is a grave sin.

    • Ah ha! Now I know why a friend of mine has “Pastafarian” as his religion on his Facebook page! 🙂

  11. Dear Bhante,
    I think Buddhism does fall under the above definition of religion. Buddhist believe in “uttaramanussadhamma” as some states that attainable by practicing correctly on the Buddhist Path and believe in people who possess these qualities. “uttaramanussadhamma” is lit. ‘above human nature’ or ‘beyond human conditions’. If we understand “supernatural” as just that. Then Buddhism is within the scope of the Australia standard definition of religion.

  12. ” – belief in a supernatural Being, Thing or Principle; and

    – acceptance and observance of canons of conduct in order to give effect to that belief.”
    And just remember. After his enlightenment, the Buddha encountered a wanderer who asked him: are you a god? are you a Yakkha? are you a human being?… to all the answers of the Buddha were negative. Yes, the word “Buddha” and “Ariya Sangha” (who had attained ‘uttaramanussadhamma’, and Dhamma, ‘law’ are quite fit to the common definition of “supernatural Being, Thing or Principle”.

  13. Dear Ven. Sujato

    I apologise for posting off topic but I wonder if you can help with something.

    I have just seen the updated http://www.ajahnbrahm.org website and it contains the following text on the front page: “He has been instrumental in providing full Bhikkhuni ordination at this monastery, thereby re-establishing the Buddha’s lineage of nuns which had died out in Theravadan countries (October 2009).”

    It seems to me that this statement lies somewhere between the disingenuous and the downright deceitful.

    Bhikkhu Bodhi states in August 2009 “The first ordination in the contemporary revival movement took place at Sarnath, India, in December 1996 [i.e. almost thirteen years before the Bodhinyana ordination] when ten Sri Lankan women were ordained as bhikkhunīs by Sri Lankan monks from the Mahābodhi Society assisted by Korean monks and nuns. From 1998 on, bhikkhunī ordinations have been held regularly in Sri Lanka, and at present over 500 women on the island have been ordained.” At the Bodhinyana ordination the bhikkhuni preceptor was Ayyā Tathāālokā, a respected bhikkhuni also of 13 years standing.

    You and Ajahn Brahm have certainly built on the pioneering work of Sri Lankan monastics and have greatly helped further the global bhikkhuni cause, both by the work you have done on the vinaya and by the Bodhinyana ordination. But this ordination simply achieved the first Theravada ordination in Australia (unless there were any previoulsy at Santi) which was not controversial, and the first ordination on Thai Forest Tradition premises, which got Ajahn Brahm and Bodhinyana expelled. The ordination itself was not in the Thai Forest Tradition but in the tradition of the preceptor, Sri Lanka. The net result is four more bhikhunnis, another Australian venue for ordinations, freedom from the Thai hierarchy and global publicity for the issue, all good.

    What the Bodhinyana ordination certainly did not do is “re-establish the Buddha’s lineage of nuns which had died out in Theravadan countries” and for Ajahn Brahm to claim credit for doing so is just patently untrue and, quite frankly, incredible for such a senior monk. Such a false public claim makes him appear to be “bigging himself up” and can only bring him and the Australian sangha into disrepute.

    There is no facility on his website to email Ajahn Brahm, so I hope that you can bring this message to his attention and ask him to remove the untrue claim which I hope is simply a mistake.

    I apologiees for hijacking this thread for a little while but there seem to be few ways of getting directly in touch with Ajahn Brahm.

    With thanks


    • Hi Tamanan,

      Thanks for pointing this out. Ajahn Brahm doesn’t get directly involved in web stuff usually (the verse on his home page being the exception to the rule!), so this would doubtless have been a miswording by whoever put it together. i’ll let him know ASAP.

    • And Here’s Ajahn Brahm’s reply to me;

      Dear Ajahn Sujato,
      Thanks for sending this on to me. I have never seen “my” website, nor am I sure who is running it! Nevertheless, I have sent my apologies to Thanissara and asked our webmaster to take appropriate action ASAP. With thanks and Mega Metta, Ajahn Brahm.

    • And from the BSWA webmaster:

      “Further to the comments in W&FS face book group reacting to the incorrect statement/claim on ajahmbrahm.org – I’d just like to let you know that that site’s content was not written by Ajahn Brahm. I wrote it. The statement about the October ordinations re-establising the ancient Bhikkhuni lineage was historically inaccurate/incorrect and I apologise. The offending claim has been removed. Please feel free to post this and quote me in the group. (I’m personally not a member and have no access)
      Bo Schafers (BSWA Web Services Coordinator)”

    • Ven. Sujato

      Thank you to you, Ajahn Brahm and Bo Schafers for your transparent and prompt responses. I am glad that it was simply an error.

      Alongside the now corrected passage, the quote that you mention on Ajahn Brahm’s homepage seemd concdescending and self-righteous rather than generous. I was concerned that Ajahn Brahm seemed to be portraying himself as “The Hero of Bodhinyana” and that the inaccurate historical claims and the condescending attitude could only harm the cause of bhikkhuni ordination. After all this is about bhikkhunis, not Ajahn Brahm, helpful though he has been. He has said that “some of my disciples get over excited”. I do feel that there is something of a cult of personality developing around Ajahn Brahm, and that he is not doing much to stop it, and this had some unfortunate consequences in this case.

      I am concerned that Ajahn Brahm has never seen “his” website and that on the Women & The Forest Sangha Facebook page he claims that he has “nothing to do with ‘my’ website”. It’s not “his” website, it actually IS his website – it is in his name and, given that it is part of a series of linked websites around Bodhinyana and Dhammaloka, the world will assume, as it has a right to, that he knows about and is responsible for the content. Given the whole furore around bhikkhuni ordination and the fact that the Walters will use anything that they can find, it is pretty irresponsible to give themn ammunition. I hope that Ajahn Brahm will take greater responsibility in future and will put in place a process for checking content before it is published.

      I posted about the historical error on one of the Ajahn Brahm Facebook “fan” pages, had my post deleted and received a message from the administrator telling me that I shouldn’t bother my pretty little head about it, it didn’t matter, and anyway Ajahn Brahm was such a compassionate monk, how dare I criticise him. Clearly, to his credit, Ajahn Brahm did think it was important and took action. In case there are any similar responses on this blog, this is not about Ajahn Brahm’s undoubted compassion, it’s about truth and responsibility.

      Dheerayupa: Bo Schafers’s creditable commitment to “restrain personal tone” is simply the professional integrity and craft of a copywriter, not an attribute of an arahant. If that were so, all the anonymous writers who have ghostwritten autobiographies for celebrities who can’t do the job themselves would be arahants! So would every competent actor!

      Thank you


    • Dear Tamanan,

      Thanks for the comments. i would agree 100% the cults of personality are very dangerous in Buddhism, and I hope you repost to the Ajahn Brahm Facebook page letting them know of his prompt action.

      For myself, I have had such a strong personal relationship with Ajahn Brahm for so long that I can see these things in the context of his character as a whole.

      Ajahn Brahm has many faults, and if we want to find things to criticize, we certainly can. I’ve been right in there, and have had two particularly difficult, long-term conflicts with him, one of which is not yet resolved. In all this time, even though I have said some strong words, I have never had even the slightest inkling that Ajahn Brahm was cutting me off or treating me as if I’d done anything wrong. This contrasts so strongly with my experience with the rest of WPP, where I have, almost without exception, found that the senior monks simply do not respond to anything slightly challenging.

      I understand that this may not be everyone’s experience, but it’s what has happened to me.

  14. Bhante,
    Thanks for mentioning the verse on Ajahn Brahm’s webpage, which I just read. Beautiful! Ajahn Brahm’s attitude is truly inspiring.

  15. Still OFF topic:

    The http://ajahnbrahm.org/ says:

    “led to a reaction from fundamentalist elements within his original training Sangha who ‘excommunicated’ him.”

    Having grown up in an Eastern Bloc country “fundamentalist elements” sounds political propaganda speach to me. Not loving kindness at all. Could the webmaster please change it to something “human” like “more conservative monks” or something?


    • Hi Roni,

      yes, I noticed this phrase as well. But this is more a matter of taste: I agree, the wording is strong, but I would also say that it’s fair. We’ve discussed fundamentalism in this blog, and it seems to me that the actions of WPP have most of the usual characteristics of what we call ‘fundamentalism’. Which is not to say that it’s a skilful wording, but it’s not obviously incorrect as in the previous case..

      But remember that I have no direct connection with the BSWA website. May I suggest you contact the webmaster at BSWA and submit your suggestions?

    • Thx for your reply, Bhante Sujato. It’s more “elements” than “findamentalist” that sounds harsh to me. I try to contact the webmaster (I thought he might read this blog).

    • I do read this blog 🙂 It’s outstanding!

      The paragraph you mention was written at a point in time when Forest tradition as an institution had lost it’s innocence for me and I still believe the word choice is appropriate.

      Then again, it’s not the language Ajahn Brahm would use and it’s his website, so I should probably restrain personal tone. I agree that ‘elements’ has a press release/propagandistic ring to it so I’ve changed it to ‘monks’.

      Thanks for the input Roni

    • Dear Bo,

      You said: “it’s not the language Ajahn Brahm would use and it’s his website, so I should probably restrain personal tone.”

      Great respect to your stance. Not easy for a person who is not yet an Arahant to do so.

      With warm loving kindness,


  16. the defining “is” the ‘reality’ – (or unreality) – what ‘is’ it
    is the biggest question – the defining of “something” – the
    ‘object’ thing….a very emphemeral mental phenomenon – all
    these discussions are “about” it – this is why there Is a debate –
    lennon may have come close with “imagine” – but should not be
    stated unless you have reached that (realisation) – this is
    why atheists come out because we be imagining it

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