Examining the Bases of Power

Following on from our talk in recent weeks of goals, character development, and the bases of power, it was surprising to receive a request to devote our Tuesday evening study group to a continuing look at the iddhipāda.

We cracked open the Samyutta Nikaya (Discourses Connected by Topic) and looked at the chapter devoted to the Iddhipāda, starting with unpacking the paragraph-long exposition of each factor in SN 51.11 (SN 51.11: Pubbasutta—Bhikkhu Sujato (suttacentral.net) ). But, having done this, it was impossible not to look ahead even a little bit and acknowledge that the iddhipāda are not simply about developing concentration. The iddhipāda-samyutta goes on in depth about developing psychic powers, the divine eye and divine ear, the ability to see past lives, and even to MāhāMogallana shaking palaces with his pinky toe. A few anecdotal stories are easy to write off as just relics of an ancient culture, but the pāli canon is absolutely stuffed with references to the powers of the mind. Iddhi

And so it was that a circle of grown adults had to be coaxed into seriously considering the question – “If you could have any superpower, what would it be?”

The Buddha declares boldly that all the enlightened beings of the past, present, and future have mastered the bases of power. So this is not just a theoretical exercise. Most teachers in the modern world are quick to brush mention of these powers aside without giving due credit to the value of the exercise of developing a capability through effort. It’s not about the results. If someone were to ask, “So you have telekinesis, what good is that? What are you going to do, clean up your child’s room with your mind? Then what?” Actually, they have a point. Most superpowers are, by themselves, kind of dumb. Even in the Pāli canon, they were rarely used without created a lot of trouble for the user. But if something had to have a really important uses or we wouldn’t want it … how many people would no longer have dogs? Or cats? Or children? Isn’t the matter of usefulness secondary?

People in the western world also have a tenuous relationship with the word ‘striving’. It brings up images of puritanical self-loathing, destructive overworking, and tunnel vision. But how much of this is because of where western culture has come from and the destruction wrought by unchecked ambition? How different would our perspective on striving be if, like in the thousands of discourses of the Pāli Canon, striving was seen as a healthy willingness to work towards our goals?

There is in fact a healthy desiring, a yearning for progress which can be cultivated and mastered. The iddhipāda encourage us to make the first steps. The recurring message of the Pāli Canon, though never said overtly in these terms, is that the only sure way to fail is to never try, and that the only thing standing between us and what we want is – us: our own limiting beliefs and assumptions, which have to be purified out of the mind like a goldsmith removes impurities from gold. After all, in the beginning everything seemed impossible. Go a day without getting drunk? Not kill a tick on sight? Sit still for an hour straight? It’s impossible, until it’s so second nature we forget it was an accomplishment brought about through effort.

It’s important not to shelve the exercise of developing our mind because we don’t believe in psychic powers. After all, what is a superpower anyway? If everyone in the world could fly would flying be a superpower? The reality of the situation, plain and simple and staring us in the face, is that being willing to change IS a superpower. It is special and uncommon. One might sit down wanting to learn to light a candle with their mind (and admittedly, that’s not the most amazingly useful power in the era of the light bulb), but along the way develop all sorts of abilities they didn’t intend to. The ability to sit quietly, insight into heat and energy, an appreciation of their own body heat that gives them the ability to endure dramatic shifts in temperature … they might also learn how to not get swept up in anger when they are feeling hot under the collar. They might develop a tolerance to burning lust that could destroy a loving relationship. And when there’s an emergency that gets the adrenaline pumping they might stay cool and collected, or at least cool enough to see what needs to be done and do it.

These are the quieter superpowers that come along the way. Most importantly, the people who cultivate the iddhipada learn about willpower and energy. They learn about believing in themselves and trying. The most exceptional quality of all tends to be how they know how to stay on course.

The irony of the lists associated with psychic powers is that the real beauty of the mind comes about through the practice itself. We become enthusiastic, balanced, calm and inquisitive. We learn about cause and effect, and we learn when to step aside and let processes just happen. The powers of mind are a stepping stone to the most powerful insights on nibbāna itself. And as the Buddha said, anyone who reaches nibbāna would have come by this path. Maybe not lighting candles or flying, necessarily, but they set goals way beyond the scope of mundane life and are willing to strive.

So, how about it? If you could do anything, what would it be? And how are you going to get there?