This article was submitted to, and published in the April-June 2014 issue of Nanyang Buddhist, the magazine of Singapore Buddhist Federation.
We should respect all beings, even helpful humans, gods and ghosts. However, Buddhists only take refuge in the perfect Buddhas, Dharma and Aryasangha.
An interestingly phrased question arose recently – ‘Why do mediums not get any Buddha to answer their devotees’ questions?’ Before there is further confusion, we should be clear that the use of mediums is not a Buddhist practice. Instead, for Chinese culture, it is part of folk religion. There are naturally irreconcilable aspects of different religions, which is why they are different in the first place and remain so. In this sense, even if a medium of any religion claims to be able to ‘channel’ a Buddha or Bodhisattva through him or her, this is entirely frowned upon by all orthodox Buddhists with right understanding. The only exception is the traditional but very exclusive use of a few trusted oracles in Tibetan Buddhism involving time-tested and dedicated Dharma protector deities (who are not Buddhas or Bodhisattvas) for very special matters.
Even if there are some who claim advice from some mediums believed to represent Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to be effective, Buddhists should never consult their services. There are two kinds of ‘mediums’ – the false ones and the genuine ones. As it is difficult to discern one from the other, one might be paying (or contributing ‘donations’) while being tricked. For false mediums, there are again two kinds. The first are the downright fakes, who consciously put on theatrical acts to fool devotees to part with their money. The second are somewhat but not total fakes, who subconsciously autosuggest themselves, often also through peer pressure of those who believe they are special, to have the ability to call upon ‘higher beings’. Such ‘mediums’ are still false, even if they have no intention to deceive, and do wish to help others.
Despite power of the autosuggestable mind, that can even express seemingly superhuman feats of endurance, there are still obvious physical and spiritual limits. If a medium, say, is supposedly possessed by an ‘animal-god’, such as a ‘monkey’, why is he or she not able to climb and swing from trees, somersaulting like a real monkey? Unless… the medium was not really possessed by such a being, while being unable to fully autosuggest oneself to believe such feats can be done. Even if capable of some acrobatics, there is the puzzle of how a character from a fictitious novel can assist real people with real problems. If the Monkey King in ‘Journey to the West’ (which is not a proper Dharma text) was written to have learnt the Dharma, this begs the question of why, if he is real, his ‘mediums’ do not preach it directly, which would surely lead to full house classes attended by thousands.
Even if a medium is genuine, he or she will not be able to ‘summon’ the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas – as the enlightened ones never taught that they are summonable through any medium. In fact, in the Surangama Sutra (楞严经), Sakyamuni Buddha, our fundamental teacher, clearly instructed Bodhisattvas and Arhats who manifest in various manners in our world to aid us to never ever reveal their true identities while alive, at most disclosing who they are just before (or after) departure. While this might sound deceptive, the purpose of this is exactly the opposite – for preventing legitimisation of self-proclaimed identities for deception by anyone. Imagine if the Buddha taught instead, that all Bodhisattvas and Arhats should announce who they are to the whole wide world. Not that there are not already many, there would be even more with bold false claims.
Therefore, anyone who puts up an actual or virtual signboard (e.g. biodata, namecards, websites, posters, tickets, books, magazines) claiming oneself to be a Buddha, Bodhisattva or Arhat is directly not a true Buddhist, much less a Buddhist teacher or spokesperson for any of the enlightened, who are explicitly forbidden to claim any enlightened identity in our era. As the Buddha gravely put it, ‘Thus as I have said, is named the Buddhas’ speech [teachings]. Not thus as said, is Papiyan’s [Mara: the evil one] speech.’ (‘如我所说，名为佛说。不如此说, 即波旬说。’) Those who make audacious claims and remain in this world are out to gather fame and fortune. Such worldly ambitions straightaway render them spiritually impure. In some cases, false teachers have been influenced or possessed by Mara (or his minions) personally, to confuse the masses, and distract them from the true Dharma.
Genuine mediums, at most, can only ‘channel’ gods and ghosts. Even the duo can be hard to differentiate as there are some ghosts (or wandering spirits) who like to possess mediums to relay messages, while impersonating others. Helpful to some extent as they might be at times, and playful at other times, their advice is not ultimate as they are not enlightened – which is why they are ghosts. Even if a god possesses a medium, the messages conveyed are still imperfect as he or she is not a fully enlightened ‘Teacher of humans and gods’, a title reserved for Buddhas. Believability in mediums arises when they seem to know past events and current situations. This is simply because gods and ghosts (and some humans) can read the thoughts of their devotees about their past and present to limited extents, so as to give seemingly ‘relevant’ answers, that do not guarantee accurate forecast of the future.
Mediums are also surely not messengers of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas as they are usually consulted only by non-Buddhists or confused Buddhists lacking in understanding. As such, the queries presented to them are usually mundane in nature, while they are never asked profound Dharma enquiries. Thus, these mediums are never ‘tested’ on their authenticity as ‘enlightened’ spokespersons. Even if not asked, they ought to speak more in congruence with actual Buddhist teachings, using more direct references from the Buddha’s teachings to further interest in the Dharma. For instance, if a medium claims to be able to ‘summon’ Guanyin Bodhisattva, he or she should be able to expound on her teachings, such as the Heart Sutra, with incomparable clarity, delivering detailed sermons often, instead of merely advising on worldly woes.
Mediums of the like above are also never dedicated students of the Dharma, for if they are, they would have come across the Surangama Sutra teaching, which admonishes assumption of sacred identities for ‘branding’ their ‘spiritual’ consultations. Some might imagine that since the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have great compassion, they should also manifest through mediums. Well, the enlightened will never go against the unequivocally stated Surangama teaching, as this would confuse us. Even if they really do help through mediums, they will never say they are the enlightened, which would counter that teaching. The Buddha’s warning against seeking (and being) such mediums is clear and indisputable. Even though Buddhists know others ‘borrow’ the statuses of Buddhist enlightened beings for medium practices, it does not mean this is agreeable. As these great beings originate from Buddhism, all should learn its true teachings to know what they really stand for.
The more one frequents mediums, the further one digresses from the path to Buddhahood. There would be greater refuge in gods and ghosts than in the ‘Teacher of humans and gods’ (and ghosts and all other beings). One might be asked to do practices against the Dharma too, such as animal sacrifice, which creates negative karma, aggravating existing problems. With possible addiction to medium advice for life’s issues instead of learning and applying the Dharma, this can stunt growth of personal wisdom. Most importantly, even if the advice is somewhat helpful, it does not lead to liberation, as gods and ghosts themselves are still trapped in the rounds of rebirth. With much proximity to mediums, especially those with access to real ghosts, the devotee’s karmic affinity with them might deepen, to further associate with them when being reborn.
Since summoned beings are unenlightened, they have greed, hatred and delusion to some extent. This means there might be a price to pay if their wrath is incurred, or if their expectations are not met. Praying to enlightened Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, there is no such problem. Since consultation of mediums does not ensure ideal results, and might even be dangerous, Buddhists stay clear of them. What is the alternative for those who wish to ‘look for’ deceased ones? As stated in the Ksitigarbha Sutra (地藏经), one can ask the Buddha, who has perfect compassion and wisdom, for help, before sincerely being mindful of his name. Connecting to his blessings, inspired answers will arise in the mind or in a dream so vivid that one will know it is not imagined. Mindfulness of the Dharma for diligent practice helps us much in everyday life too.
In Tibetan Buddhism, although some masters are believed by disciples to be manifestations of the enlightened, they never personally claim so. Even H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama, the most popular Tibetan Buddhist teacher, when asked if he is Guanyin Bodhisattva, says he is just ‘a simple monk’. If one comes across ‘teachers’ with repeated use of self-proclaimed titles of being such and such an enlightened being, or as a special earthly representation, it is best to keep far away. All authentic Buddhist teachers would follow the Buddha’s advice to attract the interested through the Dharma itself, not through such dubious marketing, which unfortunately easily attracts those uninformed of the Surangama teaching. Regarded as a ‘demon-reflecting mirror’ that reveals those affected by inner and/or outer demons, it must be used for self-reflection and for checking the integrity of ‘teachers’.
There are many kinds of false teachers riding on the name of Buddhism for easy gain of popularity. Some use many Buddhist terms and even speak of Buddhist sutras, mantras, meditation and such – for luring in nominal or new Buddhists who are vaguely familiar with them, to look credible, while reinterpreting them with self-concocted twists, throwing in non-Dharma in the mix that deviates from the real deal. This makes their teachings different, as if of a new tradition with exclusive ‘benefits’, while they are corrupting the actual teachings. Anything that radically differs from what the Buddha and great ancient Buddhist masters taught is almost always erroneous. Some claim to have special powers, such as being able to recall devotees’ past lives for advising accordingly – when these stories cannot be verified at all. This is how they stay off the hook.
They play mind games, making wide and thus safe guesses to suggest having predictive power, getting devotees to publicise only right guesses. Any open display of supernormal powers, not that they are real in the case of false teachers, that especially fosters the ego and distracts others from the true Dharma is forbidden by the Buddha. Those who display them are not true Buddhists. Pretending to be able to heal some is one of the easiest ways to attract crowds. If they are really so capable, why not directly visit hospitals? Any true physical healing does not lead to good rebirths or liberation from rebirth anyway. The Buddha was thus focused on being a spiritual over a physical doctor, as death is inevitable. That said, practice of the Buddha’s true teachings already can lead to natural healing due to eradication of negative karma that causes illness.
What if a ‘teacher’ who clearly flouts rules of conduct set by the Buddha seems to have some genuine supernormal powers? Well, even Mara (the most evil being in a world system) has some supernormal powers. Even ghosts, as above, can read minds. Thus, merely showing some powers does not guarantee truth of claims of being enlightened or a representative of the enlightened. It is no gauge of having real compassion and wisdom, while being bait for drawing in devotees. Since such powers can be demonically influenced, we must totally steer clear of such ‘teachers’, who might demonically influence us to be blind followers. Just as unexposed stage tricks, due to our lack of scrutinising ability should not make us think illusionists are miracle men, those who perform stunts in the name of religion should not simply be taken as real ‘saviours’.
With their bursting egos, false teachers tend to sell themselves through others, as being the ‘best’ teachers available, photoshopping to add auras of light around their pictures. With heavy international marketing, they can easily gather many of the faithful but deluded. Some use planted or incomplete ‘testimonials’ of those who ‘had’ semi-imaginary ‘healing’ effects with their ‘assistance’ to attract more. The more lavish packaging there is, the more should all be alert. The biodata of false teachers is also usually elaborate but upon closer look, is vague and untraceable to reputable and still existing people and institutions in the Buddhist community. Some appear monastic or even pseudo-monastic, especially those without a recognised lineage, or with one that disowned them. Some are established in worldly life, and tap upon this for popularising themselves as ‘Buddhist teachers’ – when these factors are not connected at all.
Some create spurious awards to praise and promote themselves. Some claim to have had special private instructions from late great teachers, so as to lean on their fame, while appearing to be their top disciples taking up the mantle. Some create fake histories through detailed (auto)biographies by their ‘devotees’, with outlandish claims of their ‘supernormal powers’ and ‘enlightened’ experiences, which cannot be proven. While ensuring such tall tales circulate, they cunningly pretend to be ‘humble’. Some even claim to have met the ‘enlightened’, who ‘endorsed’ them, which makes them their ‘equivalent’ or their ‘messengers’. Such ways of promoting the so-called ‘Dharma’, focusing on personal claims is wrong as the Buddha taught us to rely on the Dharma, instead of any personality. If a person is relied on in excess, one can easily be misled eventually.
How do the truly enlightened manifest in our world then? A great example would be Great Master Yinguang (1861-1940). Despite living a truly humble and frugal life, he was so awe-inspiring in conduct and instruction, that adheres strictly to the Buddha’s teachings, that he was posthumously conferred as the 13th Patriarch of the Pure Land Tradition by the Buddhist world, while being revealed to be a manifestation of Mahasthamaprapta [Dashizhi; Great Power Arrived] Bodhisattva. Never flashy, yet he remains prominent in his influence as an outstanding teacher. Remember – even the Buddha, who announced his true and full enlightenment, did not keep harping on his status, and let the worth of his actions and teachings speak for themselves. Egoistic imposters however, seek more attention for deluded reasons. Their demons are all clearly reflected in the great mirror of the Surangama Sutra!
– By various Dharma protectors
Even helpful humans, gods and ghosts who have yet to take refuge in perfect Buddhas, Dharma and Aryasangha have yet to truly realise their worth.
How To Awaken Those Tricked By Buddhist Cults
How To Prevent Being Tricked By ‘Buddhist’ Cults
Who Has Been To Pure Land & Back? (With Full Surangama Sutra Quote)
The Buddha’s Warnings Against Demonic False Teachers
The Buddha’s Admonition Against Making False Spiritual Claims (With Another Full Surangama Sutra Quote)
List will be updated regularly