At that time, Prince Great Medicine rose from his seat in the assembly, joined his palms, and asked the Buddha, “World-Honored One, what form does the consciousness take after leaving the dead body'”
The Buddha answered, “Marvelous, marvelous! Great Medicine, what you now ask concerns the great, profound state of the Buddha. No one except the Tathagata can understand it.”
At this, Wise Protector said to the Buddha, “The question raised by Prince Great Medicine is indeed profound. It shows his subtle wisdom and quick mind.”
Curious passage since the forms of consciousness have already been covered. The Buddha infers that the formations of consciousness can only be comprehended by the Tathagatas. This stipulates that the process itself is too sublime for mortal ears. Yet, Wise Protector intercedes and says that the question itself is most profound and should be further elucidated upon. There is a sudden break in the text followed by further elucidations of the question.
Seeing that Buddha was benign and that his face was beaming with joy like an autumn lotus flower in full bloom, Prince Great Medicine became jubilant. He joined his palms and said wholeheartedly to the Buddha, “World-Honored One, I love the profound Dharma; I thirst after the profound Dharma. I am in constant fear of the Tathagata’s entering parinirvana, because I will have no chance to hear him explain the true Dharma. I will then be left among the sentient beings of the five depravities, who ceaselessly remain in samsara to undergo sufferings because they are confused and too ignorant to know good from evil, wholesome from unwholesome, or perfect from imperfect. ” . . .
five depravities: also known as the Five Thieves, (lust), (wrath), (greed), (attachment) (ego or excessive pride).
Prince Great Medicine than asked the Buddha again, “World-Honored One, what is the form of the consciousness? Please explain it for me.”
The Buddha told Prince Great Medicine, “It is like one’s image in water. Such an image is ungraspable. It is neither existent nor nonexistent; and it changes shape with the water.
“The ‘shape’ of good and evil karmas and the form of the consciousness are invisible. Just as a person born blind cannot see sunrise or sunset, day or night, brightness or darkness, so we cannot see the consciousness. There are thirsty desires, feelings, and thoughts within oneself, but these are also invisible. However, all the four elements, the twelve entrances, and the five aggregates which constitute one’s self are manifestations of the consciousness. Both the rupas, such as the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, form, sound, odor, taste, and texture, and the non-rupas, such as the experiences of pain and pleasure are [manifestations of] the consciousness.
rupas: ‘ Rupa’ may be translated either as ‘form,’ which means the object of vision, or as object’ or ‘ matter’, which refers to any phenomenal thing. In the former usage, rupa is one of the six sense-objects. In the latter sense, rupa contrasts with the mind. (notes from text)
“Great Medicine, when a person tastes food with his tongue, he knows the food to be sweet, bitter, acrid, sour, salty, or astringent. The tongue and the food are visible and tangible, while the taste is not. Furthermore, because of bones, marrow, flesh, and blood, a person can be aware of sensations. Bones and so forth are tangible, but sensations are not. The same is true with knowing whether a consciousness is nourished by blessings or not.”
Then, bowing with his head at the Buddha’s feet, Wise Protector asked the Buddha, “Is it possible to know whether or not a consciousness has blessings?”
The Buddha answered, “Listen attentively! No one can see the consciousness unless he has seen the truth. Unlike a mango in the hand, the consciousness is invisible. It is not within the eye or other sense-organs. If the consciousness were within the eye or other sense-organs, it could be seen if the eye or other sense organs were dissected. Wise Protector, I, like all other Buddhas, as numerous as the sands of the Ganges, see that the consciousness has no form. The consciousness cannot be seen by ordinary people; it can be described only through parables . . . .
This passage states one of the central messages of the sutra, viz., that consciousness has no form, and yet it can initiate the manifestation all all forms; cannot be seen or known by ordinary people; its profundity and wonder are beyond the comprehension of the ordinary mind, and is therefore can be described only by parables. (notes from text) Also, this is the best explanation of the Buddha earlier emphasizing that this can only thoroughly be understood by the Tathagatas.
“Suppose a god, a ghost, a spirit . . . or other being possesses a person. What do you think? Can we find its entity inside the person’s body?”
Wise Protector said to the Buddha, “Certainly not, World-Honored One. When a god, a ghost, or a spirit possesses a person, we cannot see its entity even if we search for it inside and outside the person’s body, because it is formless and shapeless.”
“Wise Protector,” said the Buddha, “if a person is possessed by a great god with superior merits, then fragrant flowers, superior incense, delicious food and drink, and clean quarters must be offered to him, and the offerings must all be magnificent and unsullied. In the same way, a consciousness nourished by blessings will be rewarded with nobility and comfort. It will be reborn as a king, a minister, a nobleman, a very rich man, a chieftain, or a great merchant. It may acquire the body of a god to enjoy wonderful celestial bliss. A person whose consciousness is nourished by blessings acquires blissful rewards, just as a person possessed by a god with superior merits should be given excellent flowers and incense, as well as delicious food and drink, which will make him happy and cure him of his illness when he is sick. Therefore, one should know that those of high standing or great wealth acquire such blissful rewards solely because their consciousnesses are nourished by blessings.
Wise Protector, when a person is possessed by a lowly, evil ghost or spirit . . . he will be fond of excrement, putrid things, mucus, saliva, and so on; if offered such filthy things for relief, he will be happy and cured of his illness. Owing to the power of the ghost or spirit, the person delights in such impure, stinking things as excrement, just as the ghost or spirit delights in them. Similarly, a consciousness pervaded by sin will be born of poor parents, or in miserable planes of existence, such as the plane of hungry ghosts or the plane of animals which eat dirty food. If one’s consciousness is pervaded by sin, he will undergo painful karmic results.
“Wise Protector, the power of a superior god who possesses a person has no substance and no shape, but it can [make the possessed person] obtain fragrant, pure offerings . In the same way, a consciousness nourished by blessings is shapeless, but it can make [the person it resides in] acquire wonderful, blissful rewards.
Inferior, evil ghosts . . . cause the people they possess to take impure, bad food. Similarly, a consciousness pervaded by sin will [cause the person it resides in] to undergo painful retributions.
“Wise Protector, this you should know: the consciousness is devoid of form or substance . . . yet, according to whether it is nourished by sin or blessings, it will [make the person it resides in] receive painful or joyous results. ” . . .
if offered such filthy things for relief, he will be happy and cured of his illness: this sounds awfully contradictory. We know that in addiction if offered the same substance or other simulant it will only serve to reinforce the illness. Perhaps the ancients determined that through excessive use, the afflicted would eventually grow tired of it and overcome the addiction.
This segment deserves here a little mini-series in itself. At first, it may sound very strange and alien to western-ears since when hearing the word “possession” automatically implies something evil. This is not necessarily true. Under a Buddhaic-lens, such as today’s passages from this sutra, whilst it can be evil it also bespeaks about positive good influences from beneficially superior spirits or gods. Firstly, even great Brahmas can be possessed by Mara’s evil whims:
“Then Mara, the Evil One, taking possession of an attendant of the Brahma assembly, said to me, ‘If, good sir, this is what you discern, if this is what you have awakened to, do not lead (lay) disciples or those gone forth. Do not teach the Dhamma to (lay) disciples or those gone forth. Do not yearn for (lay) disciples or those gone forth. There were, good sir, before your time, brahmans & contemplatives in the world who claimed to be worthy & rightly self-awakened. They led (lay) disciples & those gone forth. They taught the Dhamma to (lay) disciples & those gone forth. They yearned for (lay) disciples & those gone forth. Having led (lay) disciples & those gone forth, having taught the Dhamma to (lay) disciples & those gone forth, having yearned for (lay) disciples & those gone forth, they — on the break-up of the body, with the cutting off of life — were established in a coarse body.” [Brahma-nimantanika Sutta: The Brahma Invitation]
Along the lines of beneficial possessions, Tibetan oracles allow themselves to become possessed, and make predictions of the future and recommend actions while possessed by spirits; the Nechung Tibetan State oracle, consulted by the current Dalai Lama, being perhaps the most well-known.
Even in theatrical presentations, the performers undergo performative-possession of the personas they are enacting. I once played the lead role of Professor Harold Hill in the musical, The Music Man. I actually channeled Robert Preston—it was that good.
The same can be said of orchestral compositions. For instance, Bach’s magnificent St. Matthew Passion can be said to take possession of the performer’s spirit—they become As One with Bach’s music. Even in listening and relishing such recordings can lift one’s spirit far and beyond their present malaise.
Transcendent experiences are normative within Buddhism:
Grounded in the dissolution of the everyday self, the potentials of transcendent experience are developed through specific technologies of meditation, visualisation, mantra recitation, and tantric possession. The primary initial referent for this possession is the adept’s own teacher or guru, who is taken (typically after long personal association and experience) as a human model that embodies for the disciple the essential aspects of Buddha’s understanding and compassionate awareness. The essences embodied and symbolised by the guru are intensely meditated on and internalized – and then extended through projective association to traits and features associated with a powerful tantric deity or yidam. These divine features and capacities are likewise internalized by the adept until he or she internalizes the deity and begins to actually experience life in divine form. As such, the guru, the tantric deity, and the erstwhile self are all understood and experienced to be manifestations or emanations of unified transcendent nature. (Bruce M. Knauft, article, Self-possessed and Self-governed: Transcendent Spirituality in Tibetan Tantric Buddhism)
Also in China the word ki means divination, instruments used for summoning divine forces, divine possession, or communication with gods.
The following are Tantric Snapshots from Geoffrey Samuel’s excellent text, Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies:
The Tibetan practices included from early times a cult of local deities, communication with those deities by means of spirit- possession, and concerned with defence against malevolent and destructive spirits through the agency of the local deities. The most important deities were evidently from very early times the gods and goddesses of the mountains; Streams and lakes also had indwelling deities.
Spirit-possession is of considerable interest because of the conceptual similarity with the system of incarnate lamas or trulku. Incarnate lamas are frequently ‘emanations’ of particular bodhisattva (Buddhist tantric deities) and as Barbara Aziz suggests they can be regarded as having been in a sense permanently possessed by those bodhisattvas.
Tantric ritual also involves what could be described as a temporary ‘possession’ by the Tantric deity, although in Tantric theory, as I have already mentioned, one would speak rather of the deliberate and conscious assumption of the nature of that deity.
The magical abilities Siddhartha attained at his Enlightenment under the bodhi-tree, and his power over the local spirits and demons, reflected and continued the shamanic approach to reality.
The concept of bodhisattva has another side, too. What defines a bodhisattva is the possession of a specific motivational state, technically called bodhicitta, ‘enlightenment mind’ [this entails being possessed by the mind of the Tathagatas themselves. Inclusion Mine].
Within the Vajrayana one becomes empowered through the realization of sambhogakayic planes of realities. This is possible through encounters with one’s Yidam. One always begins these transcendent sessions with the Samadhi of Suchness. This entails recognizing your own Buddhaic-nature and staying put in that. In that very moment, you are actually in the state of the primordially pure essence—and slowly but surely that essence takes full possession of your spirit. I have often experienced this during my meditations with the Five Dhyani Buddhas, in particular with Akshobhya and Amoghasiddhi as well as Ratnasambhava. A general exercise for encountering and becoming one with all of their energies can be had through daily Eremitical Dhyani Meditations. When one is faithful to these exercises on a daily basis the transformative energies of these Dhyani Buddhas will most assuredly possess your mind and spirit in healthy and vibrant ways.
It must also be said that in these positive possessions one also beneficially derives a self-protection from malevolent spirits.