Buddhism Topics:
Buddhism, Mysticism, and Science

Can we explain mystical experiences as some sort of physical phenomena?

Physical phenomena refer to the matters and forces studied in physics, such as magnetic fields and forces, electromagnetic waves, electromagnetic induction, optics, velocity of light, thermal energy, gaseous energy, gasification, and so on. Mystical experiences generally refer to people’s receptions and sensations of spiritual forces. The correct way to generate mystical experiences is to attain extraordinary functions of the mind, body and sense organs through methods of cultivation. Mystical experiences may also be taken as the function of resonant responses between practitioners and the buddhas, bodhisattvas, various divine beings as well as ghost and deities.

In a general way these extraordinary functions and supernatural forces can be illuminated by analogy with concepts in physics. Therefore, as I have said before, in principle even materialistic atheists may be able to cultivate supranormal powers, as long as they practice the right methods correctly. If one concentrates their mind to a certain level it is possible to change the state of physical phenomena through the manipulation of energy fields.

The whole universe can be thought of as a giant energy field; therefore, no single object in part or by itself, can exist apart from the total system. Within this huge environment, an object’s field orientation will not change common questions in the practice of Buddhism unless subjected to additional factors, which can then produce small changes. Continuous and consistent changes although minor and partial, will eventually change the field orientation of the whole object.

As a result of cultivation, a medium’s mind power may affect the energy field within their range of influence, consequently changing existing patterns, which may lead to producing phenomena as directed by the mind. The stronger one’s mind power, the wider its range of influence and the longer the power is maintained, the greater its ability to effect changes. This is the supranormal power of unimpeded bodily actions (shenzutong). However, nobody can use mind power to alter human destiny or the natural laws of the universe.

As for seeing into the future and seeing miniscule things and things at a great distance in the present (the divine eye), as well as seeing into the past existences of sentient beings, they are related to optics and qi. Seeing into the past existences is to know the past. In a sense, the farther one is located from the earth, the further back in time one would see the happenings on earth. For instance, if you are 3,000 light-years away from the earth, you would see the earth as it was 3,000 years ago. Of course, a person with past vision does not need to see with their naked eyes; rather, they use the power of the mind or the power of resonating responses; their acute sensibility is also far beyond ordinary people’s logical reasoning. Therefore, they do not need to retreat to a place far from the earth to examine the conditions of its historical past.

Because of the intricate complexity of light and images which change constantly, people with weak supernormal ability would not be able to see into the distant past. Even when seeing more recent events, they would not be able to see clearly but only the general situation with blurred details. Only buddhas and bodhisattvas with their limitless supernormal power are able to see long into the past with total clarity.

As to qi, it is a kind of moving force of physical phenomena. Colorless and odorless, qi contains substantial energy. Any phenomenon that has come into being would leave certain imprints that can be traced backwards. Therefore people with the power of past vision do not need to be light-years from Earth to see past events. The speed of light and the concept of light-years are merely analogies to help explain the principle of the flow of time.

The divine eye, which is the ability to know the future, is due to the karmic power of peoples’ various accumulated deeds which can be understood as patterns of seeds. The stronger the causal seeds of one’s deeds, the larger the probability of the effects, and the more acutely the future can be known. It is like seeing a grown tree within a seed, or seeing nuclear energy within an atom.

However, Buddhadharma does not stray from the principle of causes and conditions; the effects of causes and conditions are determined by every single element in the entire environment, and every change of any single element may affect the future development of the whole. Therefore, although the Buddha saw that every sentient being is capable of achieving buddhahood, he could not give a prophecy (Chn. shouji; Skt. vyakarana) as to when every sentient being would achieve it. If one has not yet seen the nature [of emptiness] of all dharmas, or at least not yet attained the consummation of faith, the Buddha would not be able to foretell when one would attain buddhahood. Here, “foretelling” means predicting how long it would take, how many buddhas one needs to make offerings to and study with, before one would definitely attain buddhahood. In the case of Shakyamuni Buddha, before he saw Dipankara Buddha, he did not receive any prophecy from any buddha. Only after kalpas of cultivation was Shakyamuni’s attaining buddhahood prophesized by Dipankara Buddha.

Ordinary people are adrift in the bitter ocean of birth and death, struggling to keep their heads above water. It is like a long dark night with no end in sight. Even though the Buddha has the divine eye, he cannot predict when all sentient beings will achieve buddhahood. If a person has not yet attained the stage of forbearance or one may still retrogress, even the Buddha cannot foresee that individual’s karmic future. Therefore, though we may use physics to explain some mystical effects, we should not blindly believe that science is able to solve everything. The scope of scientific knowledge is limited and will forever be limited; yet the cultivation of Buddhadharma and its functions are without limits.

The Buddha’s virtues and wisdom are boundless. Trying to use physical phenomena based on mankind’s limited scientific knowledge to explain, speculate, or infer the Buddha’s wisdom and supranormal powers is like measuring the ocean with a seashell, or observing the sky through a small tube. Yet, there is no harm in using science as an expedient tool to help us explain the mystical phenomena of great practitioners. However, the purpose should be to educate those who themselves lack experience of inner realization and mystical experience. We should not imagine that science can truly explain everything. To do so is putting the cart before the horse.

Having had a taste of mystical experience, some people try to use scientific terms and cutting-edge scientific theories and discoveries to explain ideas in the Buddhist sutras, and to investigate the Buddha’s insights and realization. As a tentative expediency it is acceptable but one should definitely not claim that these are the actual conditions in the realms of the buddhas or bodhisattvas. The best, most accurate and safest way to explain Buddhism is through comparative exegesis of the sutras – to use the Dharma to explain the Dharma. Otherwise, it will inevitably be far-fetched or falsely constructed. Some people will rely on their own “sixth sense” and appropriate scientific terminology to explain mystical phenomena in Buddhism; that is certainly not correct.

It is said: “The buddha realms are known only among buddhas.” The world of the buddhas and the great bodhisattvas cannot be grasped by ordinary beings. How then can a small measure of mystical experience and limited knowledge of phenomena explain the lofty and wonderful realm of supranormal powers of the buddhas and bodhisattvas?


Common Questions in the Practice of Buddhism, Buddhism, Mysticism, and Science, p292-296.

Common Questions in the Practice of Buddhism

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