Powers in Yoga and Zen

Powers

In the great Yoga classic of Patanjali it is stated that a man who practises virtue and does not hate those who do not (sutra 1.33) can acquire various powers (sutra III.23) such as a knowledge of remote or concealed things (sutra III.2 5), by making special concentrations on them. But in sutra III.3 7 it goes on to say that such ‘perfections’ are obstacles to spiritual progress and lead to relapses, because the excitement they cause will disturb and darken the mind which exercises them.

Many people find it rather irritating to hear these things being mentioned and then immediately ruled out on grounds which are not necessarily convincing. They usually think they would do rather well if they could exercise real power, such as that of a leader of some great movement.

The head of a large Buddhist sect was once asked by a reporter whether it is difficult for a man in a position of power to remain humble and kind.

‘Usually very difficult,’ was the reply.

‘But you yourself have this position at the head of more than ten thousand temples – do you find . . . ?’

‘I have to remind myself occasionally, of course, but the fact is that in a public position like this every little thing I do is seized on by the press and ruthlessly criticized. So there is not too much danger that I shall begin to think myself in any way remarkable. As for kindness, well there again I have to meet the approval of the followers of this sect, and set an example to them. So I am not likely to be allowed to become tyrannical in my present position.’

‘Then why do you say it is difficult?’

‘Ah, that is something else. That is when there is real power. I had it once, when I had completed my second year in the training temple. I was asked to train a new entrant from the country in how to cook. I was a good cook myself – mother had often been ill and I had had to learn it. Well, that boy was clumsy and had no idea how to go about things. I gave him absolute hell. There were just the two of us in the kitchen most of the time; there was no one to know about it, and he was too scared to complain. Gradually he got paler and paler, and finally the head monk realized something must be wrong. He transfered him to the garden, where he soon recovered. Now that was a situation of real power. And I didn’t do very well in it. I simply didn’t understand what I was doing. I used to tell myself that strict training was necessary. I realized soon afterwards that I had been arrogant and cruel, and it has been a lesson to me all my life.’There may be other disadvantages attached to acquiring unusual powers. A merchant, who had done a good deal of unselfish charity in strict secrecy, one day met a yogi who looked at him and said,

‘You have laid up a store of good karma. You are entitled to receive some instructions, by which you can either make spiritual progress or get one of the occult powers.’

‘I am not sure I am ready for spiritual progress,’ said the merchant, ‘in fact, I don’t know what it is. But I could do with the ability to know the thoughts of others; I wouldn’t use it to swindle them, but only to protect myself from being cheated.’

The yogi said, ‘This is easily learned, but perhaps you had better have a little experience of it first. When I came to this village, I passed a little hut in disrepair at the northern end; please go and stay for three days and nights there.’

The merchant took an umbrella to protect himself against leaks, and a stove to cook his meals; he more or less camped in the little hut for three days and nights. When he returned he looked tired and harassed.

‘What happened?’ said the yogi.

‘Why, it was a failure. I didn’t become able to read thoughts. The fact is that I haven’t been able to sleep. In the house just by my hut there’s a pair who are both drunkards and very quarrelsome. They were swearing and shouting and screaming at each other all day and night; I couldn’t sleep, and even in the day I couldn’t read, it was so disturbing. I don’t understand why you sent me there.’

‘Yes, I heard all this in passing when I first came here,’ said the yogi. ‘But you did know their thoughts, didn’t you? They were shouting them. I wanted you to have that experience – that’s what it would be like. Voices yelling in your head all the time.’

‘Surely one could learn to switch off the telepathy by mental control, couldn’t one?’ asked the merchant. ‘Then it would do one no harm.’

‘That is true. So you could begin now practising how to withdraw your attention from external disturbances; it will help you to make real spiritual progress. But when you can spend three days and nights in that hut without being disturbed, switching off your attention by mental control, then if you like I will teach you telepathy. It may take you quite a few years.’

The merchant thought for a bit, and then laughed.

‘Tell me about real spiritual progress,’ he asked, ‘not this stuff.’

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