A little more than a year ago,, I was teaching an intensive course on “Zen Masters,” approaching this topic from the angle of spiritual authority: what makes us commit ourselves fully to an authority figure who should have no hold on us otherwise? What makes us become religious, join cults, and sacrifice our intellectual freedom to the whims of a master or guru? (Click here for examples of student projects resulting from the class; and here for the syllabus).
The students in that class were excellent, in that they could look beyond their fascination with Zen as a lifestyle (a reason many of them were taking the class) to employ the perspectives I was offering (Bourdieu, Foucault, etc.) them as critical tools to consider the history, especially the modern history, of Zen. It was a great experience, when you remember why it is that you decided to become a teacher. To meet them I gladly faced the -30 degree centigrade temperatures that make Minnesota one of the colder places in the continental USA (admittedly I did have a car, and tried to limit time spent outside of it).
One student comment from that class stood out to me. I think it happened when we were talking about demons. Now, Zen writings often talk about (hungry) ghosts and many types of other fantastic creatures. Modern takes on these monsters tend to secularize them as elements of our psychology (i.e. “the demons are representations of our destructive desires; of our ignorance, etc.”) or dismiss them as power plays (i.e. “the master mentions beating the demon to establish his own superiority”). Almost all of the students in the class, building upon the readings from Foucault and Bourdieu, went the latter interpretative route. But one student did not. Having grown up in Central Asia, she kindly pointed out that where she was from, these monsters were very real. She then went on to recall how, while she was growing up, the statues of demons in Buddhist temples were real presences. These presences did not just come alive in the shadows light threw on their features, but also found their way into her grandmother, who was regularly possessed by a spirit. To her and her family, the fact that her grandmother’s manner and physical bearing completely changed from one moment to the other was a normal, even funny, fact of their daily life.
Spirit possessions and demons. Telepathy, human flight, out-of-body experiences. The modern study of religion has given a great variety of explanations for the enormous amount of supernatural presences and powers in all religious traditions and narratives (some of which I suggested to my students in class). But few scholars in the field do not reduce these phenomena to something else. If someone sees a demon, it’s a hallucination. If someone flies, it’s a mass hallucination. Also, the people who wrote this were high on drugs all the time.
For a long time, I bought into the explanations I have sketched above. In my particular case, I have always found tracing who would profit from the promulgation of a religious idea, text, practice, etc. a rewarding task. There is also something to be said for introducing students to a historical-materialist take on the history of religions, where, for example, the Roman Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity is not motivated by personal experience but more by political concerns. He did not really see a cross hanging in the midday air of the battlefield. He just said so to make himself seem special. After all, such things are impossible.
And yet. And yet I have had personal experiences that I cannot call hallucinations, that I hesitate to reduce to a materialist framework. And I wonder whether Constantine did as well. During periods of intense meditation, I have seen demons and angels. In China, I have seen a Buddhist master stand in on the top of a cliff, and disappear into thin air the next moment. When that same master held his hand over my head, I felt an electric power, similar to the current I feel running through me whenever I practice Tai Qi Quan.
This divide between my scholarly ideas and my personal experience was revealed to me when I started reading the work of Jeff Kripal, on the recommendation of a good friend. Kripal’s academic credentials are hard to laugh away: he is an endowed chair at Rice University, at the time of this writing ranked as the 14th best university in the US. He publishes in major peer-reviewed journals and with Chicago University Press. His very first book won a prestigious award of the American Association for the Study of Religion.
And yet he writes off-the-bat crazy shit.
To give one example: in The Super Natural: Why the Unexplained is Real (2017), he collaborates with Whitley Strieber, who is famous for writing Communion, a book at the center of the UFO-encounters of the Third Kind phenomenon (Strieber disagrees with the notion that what he encountered are necessarily aliens). The book is a back-and-forth between Strieber and Kripal, with the former acting as a type of “primary source” for the latter’s analyses. One thing that shines forth from these analyses is the idea that the encounters Strieber had show a remarkable resemblance with other visions of the mystical and paranormal kind. Playful and yet entirely serious, Kripal suggests that we might be better off not only putting these encounters in such a comparative framework, but that such a framework reveals that the conventional way we look at the world–namely from a framework that sees humans as collections of atoms that have coincidentally become conscious but will disintegrate when they die, who live in a world determined by cause-and-effect physics of matter-upon-matter–is wrong. The empirical evidence, thousands upon thousands of testimonies of people experiencing “super natural” phenomena contradict what Kripal calls the “materialist” framework. Instead, telepathy, demons, spirit possession, human flight, are all manifestations of a Consciousness beyond ourselves. He calls this “The Human as Two.” Beyond our small egos and rational frameworks there is realm, rarely accessible but glimpsed by many and experienced by some, where time doesn’t exist (and one can therefore know the future as well as the past), where everything is one (and one can slide into someone else’s skin), where, in short, nearly everything is possible.
I told you it was crazy. Reading Kripal reminds me a little bit of the UFO books I devoured as a teenager, books that claimed that aliens built the pyramids and were at the source of all human knowledge. Books that claimed that all civilization came from the aliens, who once inhabited Mars. Books that spuriously drew upon carefully selected bits of truth to construct elaborate hoaxes.
If you are anything like me, it will be hard to convince you that Kripal’s work is different, that it is not BS. And yet it is serious academic scholarship, built upon the critical framework that has been one of the proudest achievements of the humanities. Kripal is nothing if not keenly attuned to the necessity of critiquing the frameworks we use to assess different phenomena. In fact, it is this attunement that exactly leads him to question why we are so stubbornly holding on to materialist doxa.
I might write more about Kripal later. But for now I want to discuss one of his seemingly more innocent hypotheses. He calls reading one of the most powerful paranormal technologies we possess (in The Super Natural): by reading, we of course “read” what someone else thought at another time and place. It is telepathic in this sense. Kripal also reports that many of his readers have paranormal experiences after reading one of his books. In the introduction to his latest book, The Secret Body (2018, review in Times Higher Ed. is here), he accounts for these experiences as follows:
“To be frank, I think that these super-readers’ anomalous responses to my texts are not anomalous at all but point toward some of the most fantastic potentials of reading and writing and, indeed, of consciousness itself. I do not cause these reading events and experiences in my readers. Prof. X aside [Kripal has published a monograph on comic book heroes like the “X-men” as popular representations of mystical experiences], I am no super-mutant working wonders in other people’s dreams, bodies, and rooms. I am simply an author who takes these dimensions of human nature as real, as part of who we all already are, wherever and whenever we are. By acknowledging as much and then exploring the implications of this acceptance, my books give permission to their readers to access and experience these realities for themselves. In effect, the books encourage them to ignore the cultural censor and talk about their experiences openly and honestly. The readers make the impossible possible, which, of course, was never really impossible.” (3)
This is a statement to ponder: Kripal proposes that reading books can be truly revolutionary, can alter one’s mind to think differently, more broadly. It makes me remember two different events of my life. The first is my decision to study literature because I felt that poetry gave me a non-dual access to reality, something that Edmund Burke has called the “sublime.” The second is an experience I had while reading Alan Watts’ classic The Way of Zen. At some point, he was talking about how our ego’s are built upon a random selection of memories, excluding many others. After reading this, I got out of the subway, and walked home. During that walk, and for the next three days, there was no distinction between me and my surroundings. I was the trees and stones. Back then, I hadn’t heard much about mystical experiences that are induced by reading. This is just one of the things that I am discovering in Kripal’s work, which I think will occupy me for some time to come.