Not long ago I attended a poetry reading, held at a local Buddhist centre. It was a small gathering, as poetry readings often are, and took place in the meditation hall under the watchful eye of an enormous gold Buddha figure. Presiding over events was a certain poet who was diligent in her efforts to extract every last drop of edifying Buddhist meaning from each and every poem that was read.
As this was a relaxed affair, more of a chat about poetry than a formal reading, some members of the audience had been pressed into bringing their own poems along to be read. One gentleman brought a poem from the Tibetan yogi and mystic Milarepa, which he read in its entirely.
After the poem was finished the poet whose task it was to compère the evening hung her head as if in deep thought. Then she gazed up at the audience to solicit our approval and asked us what we thought. A few people murmured her approval. Having garnered our approval, the poet gave a short discourse on the life of Milarepa.
In brief, the story goes like this. Milarepa was born in 1052. His father died when he was a child and his family were left at the mercy of his rapacious uncle and aunt who stripped them of their inheritance. Milarepa trained in the black arts of sorcery and destroyed his enemies. Later, taken by remorse, he apprenticed himself to the teacher Marpa, who put him through terrible ordeals to purify him of his past crimes. He eventually dedicated himself to meditation, developed a range of supernormal powers, such as the ability to fly, and became famous himself as a great yogi. When she had finished giving a synoptic account of this story, the poet said, ‘Of course, we don’t really know whether Milarepa could actually fly.’
The moment she said this, I wanted to leap to my feet and to cry, ‘Yes! We do know! We can be absolutely certain that Milarepa did not fly!’ But, to my shame, I did not. I was cowed by the atmosphere of respectful awe. The audience were all nodding in approval. The statement went by unchallenged. So here, rather too late, I want to assert that yogis cannot fly – or not unless you put them in a hot-air balloon, a glider or a Boeing 767. I want to assert this because it seems to me that it is too easy to surrender to an unthinking and uncritical approach to the dharma that, rather than attempting to shatter our illusions, merely builds beautiful (but nonexistent) palaces of fantasy in which to take up residence. This approach ultimately transforms the dharma from a means of grappling with the realities of our existence (sickness, old age, death, our own turbulent hears and heads), to yet another escape from these realities.
So, what grounds do I have for asserting that yogis cannot fly? It is possible to take a traditional view on this. Philosophers in ancient India liked to discuss questions of epistemology, of how we can come to know anything at all; and they often classified these ways of knowing into three broad areas. Firstly there is direct experience, or sensation. Secondly there is inference. And thirdly there is the testimony of reliable sources. So I might have a toothache (sensation), and come to the conclusion that there is something wrong with my teeth (inference). Then I might go to the dentist and ask his opinion (testimony). These three sources of knowledge can be in conflict (my dentist says my teeth are fine, but I feel pain), or in agreement; and different Indian schools of philosophy argued about which could be admitted as true sources of knowledge. It is not my intention to go into these debates here; instead what I want to claim is that none of these sources of knowledge – neither sensation, nor inference nor testimony – permit us to conclude that Milarepa could fly.
The first of these is easy to exclude. We have no direct experience of Milarepa taking to the air and flying above our heads. This does not need any further discussion. Of course, even if we did have direct experience of Milarepa flying, we could not be sure that our knowledge was certain. Perhaps we are deluded, under the influence of hallucinogens, possessed, suffering from stress, or simply plain mad.
The second question, that of inference, is one that we cannot dismiss quite so easily as the first. If we do not have direct experience of Milarepa flying then perhaps we can infer that he flew or that he might have flown.
How are we to go about this? Milarepa, we can assume without causing too much upset, was a creature of the genus homo sapiens sapiens. We can also more or less uncontroversially assume that he lived in a world in which the same laws of physics apply as do today. There is little evidence from 11th century texts that, at the time, objects dropped from the hand ordinarily did anything other than plummet to the floor. However, the Tibetan texts tell us that sorcerers and yogis could fly. If we are to consider this possibility, then we must conclude that there was something peculiar about sorcerers and yogis that enabled them to fly, whilst all other people couldn’t.
One way of arguing from inference is by saying that ‘if Milarepa was a yogi, and we can be sure that at least some yogis do indeed manage to fly, then we can infer that perhaps Milarepa flew.’ The strength of the inference that we draw is dependent to some extent on the proportion of yogis who manage to fly. If all yogis manage to fly, then we may be fairly certain in our inference that Milarepa could fly; if only a few yogis can fly, then we may be less certain.
As it happens there are some surprising results of research into yogic practice that demonstrate that yogis can do some pretty remarkable things: for example research has been carried out that has confirmed that through meditation it is possible to raise the body temperature so that it is possible to remain in freezing conditions, at least for short spells, in few clothes, as Milarepa was said to do. But there is no contemporary evidence at all that meditation can cause you to levitate. Even an inch. Even a hair’s breadth.
It may be, of course, that today’s yogis are of a pretty low calibre (shame on you all!), and that in times gone by they were more impressive. However, this claim does not help us much if we are attempting to argue through inferential reasoning that Milarepa could fly, throwing us back upon the third of our three sources of knowledge: the testimony of the wise.
We have thrown out direct experience and inference, and we are left with the third of our sources of knowledge: the testimony of the wise. The immediate problem here is that reliance upon testimony alone is antithetical to Buddhism, and the Buddha himself is reputed to have told his followers to test all knowledge-claims in the fire of experience. Testimony may be useful as a subsidiary access to knowledge; but as a sole source it is suspect. In addition to this, whilst we might in theory be able to trace a witness who was sufficiently reliable, all we would be able to assert was that to this witness, Milarepa appeared to fly. We would still need to ask the following questions of any testimony:
- Can we be sure who is testifying and what their motivations are?
- How many other reliable witnesses do we have?
- Are the inferences drawn by our witnesses the only ones that could be drawn?
- Are there similar events in our experience?
- If this event is outside of our experience, can we reasonably infer that in certain circumstances it could happen?
- Are there simpler explanations that are more in accord with experience and inference?
- If we accept this testimony, what else are we committed to accepting on similar grounds?
The last is Occam’s razor – the principle of favouring the most simple and consistent explanation. When we address these questions to the story of Milarepa, we hit with problems. The work The Life of Milarepa was complied by Tsan Nyon (1452-1507), writing under the name of Durto Nyulwai Gyenchen, who produced a version ‘based on the oral tradition’ and printed on wood-blocks. So Tsan Nyon, who had no direct experience of Milarepa, is compiling oral histories garnered from others who had no direct experience, this being the fifteenth century, some four hundred years after Milarepa’s death: and so we have a testimony based upon a testimony based upon a testimony… and so on; and we need to ask the questions listed above for each link in the chain.
So… can they?
In answer to the poet, then, we can say that, contrary to her claim, Milarepa did not fly. There is simply no evidence at all to make us suspect that he might have done. We know this because we have no direct experience, because we cannot infer that he flew and because the story in which it is told is clearly unreliable and is not a piece of reportage or a witness-statement.
This may seem like a rather harsh response to what was a passing comment, particularly as the poet was overflowing with goodwill and desired only to inspire faith in the people who had gathered for the poetry reading. But I am not sure that it is: in any other context other than the religious, this extreme credulity would be dismissed out of hand. Nobody in that room would have believed me, for example, had I claimed that whilst sitting on the bus that morning a passenger had flown out of the upstairs window to avoid the ticket collectors who were coming on board. And quite rightly so. And so why court such obvious madness in the name of Buddhism?