The Buddha sometimes spoke of and believed in the existence of psychic abilities (iddhi). Several of these abilities seem impossible; being able to walk through walls, walking on water, levitating, etc (D.I.78). Others seem problematic while not being totally impossible, and are certainly intriguing; being able to hear things over a great distance and being able to read other people’s minds being two of these. I am much more open to the possibility to these two, particularly the last, because I once had an experience which seemed to be something like it.
Late one night I was meditating in my darkened room. I had been in a deep, stable concentration for some time when suddenly I heard someone’s voice in the room very near me. The voice was clear and loud. I was immediately jolted out of my meditation and opened my eyes to see who it was. I looked around the room (my eyes were accustomed to the dark and there was some light coming through the window) but could see no one. Intrigued and a little worried that there was an intruder in the premises, I got up and looked around. Again nothing. I went to the window and out in the street saw several young men fixing a motorbike under a street lamp. They were some distance away but I could just hear their voices. Initially it was the voice I had heard in my room itself which had startled me, not what it said. Now I recalled that the voice had been talking about things related to motorbikes. I realized that for a few moments or so I had spontaneously heard part of a conversation that had been going on out in the street as if it had taken place just a few feet from me. For the next few weeks every one of my meditation was a failure. I longed to get into a deep stable concentration so I could have a similar ‘psychic’ experience again. Of course this hope was the very thing that disrupted my meditation and blocked it from happening. And nothing like it has ever happened again. However, since this experience I have met several deeply committed meditators who have told me that they have had similar experiences. Of course one meets plenty of meditators who are more than happy to tell you all about their amazing psychic experiences, often after just a few weeks meditation. I am referring to long-term mediators who have spent extended periods in silence and solitude.
Another psychic ability mentioned by the Buddha is what he called producing the mind-made body (mano maya kaya). He described it like this, “He (i.e. the meditating monk) draws out of his body another body, having form, made of mind, complete in all its limbs and faculties” (D.I,77). This sounds very like the often reported phenomena now called out-of-body experience, OBE. People who have been brain dead and then revived sometimes report having OBE, others say it occasionally happens to them during sleep or during a period of intense physical exhustition. Interestingly, the Buddha specifically says that creating a mano maya kaya is a willed experience, one has to “apply and direct the mind” (cittam abhiniharati abhininnameti) to producing it. However, perhaps this does not cancel out the possibility of it happening spontaneously. OBE is often enough reported that it has attracted the attention of cognitive scientists and others and there is a surprisingly large amount of literature on the subject. The Wikipedia article Out-of-body Experience offers a good overview of this literature. Charles T. Tart’s article ‘Six Studies of Out-of-body Experience’ in the Journal of Near-Death Studies, No.2, 1998 is a good read – rigorously scientific while being open to the possibility of a spiritual/psychic (if that’s the right term) explanation. But to return to the Dhamma; how does the mano maya kaya fit into the Buddhist model of consciousness? And is there anything in modern or neurological research that could explain it. Any opinions?