Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly

Going Beyond Mind’s Fabrications

RECENTLY, WHILE TEACHING in Brazil, I happened to mention devas and rebirth. The next morning, I received two complaints. The first was, “Why do we have to listen to this supernatural stuff? I don’t believe in anything except for the natural world I can see with my own eyes.” The second complaint was of a different sort: “Why are Western Buddhist teachers so afraid to talk about the supernatural side of the Buddhist tradition?”

To answer the second question, all I had to do was point to the first. “It’s because of questions like these. They scare teachers away from the topic.” I might have added that there’s an irony here. In an effort to be tolerant, Western Buddhist teachers have admitted dogmatic materialists into their ranks, but these materialists have proven very intolerant of the supernatural teachings attributed to the Buddha. If he was really awakened, they say, he wouldn’t have taught such things.

To respond to the first question, though, I asked one in return: “How do you know that the natural world is real? Maybe what you see with your eyes is all an illusion. What we do know, though, is that suffering is real. Some people have the kamma to experience supernatural events; others, the kamma to experience only natural events. But whatever the range of the world you experience, you can create real suffering around it, so that’s what the Buddha’s teaching focuses on. He’s got a cure for suffering.”

This battle between materialist/naturalist and supernatural worldviews has been going on for millennia. The Pali canon shows that it was already raging at the Buddha’s time. Several long discourses are devoted to the wide variety of worldviews the Buddha’s contemporaries advocated, and if anything, their variety was greater than ours is now. Some maintained that the world and the self were purely material; others, that there was a soul that remained the same forever; others, that the soul and the world were identical; and still others, that the soul perished at death. Some argued that moral laws were just a convention; others, that a moral law was built into the cosmos. Some believed that the world had a creator; others believed that it arose by chance; others, that it has existed without any beginning point

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STEPHEN BATCHELOR began his Buddhist studies in 1972 in India, received full ordination as a bhikkhu in 1979, and disrobed in 1985, following three years of training in Korean Seon. The author of Buddhism Without Beliefs and cofounder of Bodhi Colleg