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The concept we call "supernatural" emerged in Western culture in the late Middle Ages. Philosophers of the time were observing that natural phenomena consistently follow "laws" intrinsic to nature. The word "supernatural" originally referred to an occurrence that violates known laws of nature. Of course, that leaves open the possibility that nature has laws we don't know about.

In time, "supernatural" came to refer to an occurrence in which an unseen force or intelligence willfully interferes with the laws of nature and causes something to happen that shouldn't happen naturally. It can also refer to existence outside the natural world, a place where one is not bound by gravity, entropy, linear time, whatever.

A few days ago I found a post by blogger Sujato called "Buddhism and the Supernatural," who argues "The very notion of 'Supernatural' is one that, it seems to me, arises from Western philosophical assumptions." I'm not sure I agree with that entirely, but on reflection it does seem there are "assumptions" at work, cultural or otherwise, in what we choose to label "natural" and "supernatural."

Buddhism on the whole doesn't require belief in unseen beings somehow guiding or disrupting natural events. Some schools of Buddhism actively discourage such beliefs, although plenty of Buddhists believe in them, anyway. On the other hand, vajrayana appears to have turned such beliefs into upaya -- skillful means for realization. But I would say that even in vajrayana belief in unseen spirits or forces is the vehicle, not the destination.

The dharma brings forth a proposition -- there is something to be realized or discovered or woken up to, to which most of us are oblivious. And this something is not reachable by intellect alone, or the Buddha could have simply explained it to us. Instead, he left us with a path of practice so we can wake up ourselves.

Is this "something" supernatural? Or is it something natural that usually eludes the scope of our senses and intellect? Or is it something to which the concepts of natural and supernatural do not apply?

The degree to which this something is invested with "supernatural" aspects varies from school to school. In some sutras, awakened beings exhibit what most of us would recognize as supernatural powers. Should we understand this literally or allegorically? Or some other way?

Zen, which is something of an outlier in these matters, fiercely extols the ordinary. Master Bankei said, "My miracle is that when I'm hungry, I eat, and when I am tired, I sleep." But I'd say that often we sort experiences into "ordinary" and "extraordinary" based on those assumptions mentioned above. And sometimes we can be utterly oblivious to very ordinary things.

Take, for example, gravity. I have read that before Sir Isaac Newton worked out his theory of gravity there was no English word for "gravity" as a physical phenomenon. Newton corresponded about his work with his friend Edmond Halley, and in some of this correspondence words didn't exist for what they were talking about. They were discussing something that had always existed but which was so taken for granted, no one fully realized it.

Sure, people before Newton had observed that stuff falls, but Newton was the one who perceived that this stuff-falling-thing was a force, a natural law. We've all conceptualized gravity differently ever since. Newton's story of realizing the truth of gravity when an apple fell on his head probably was a fabrication. But there may have been a moment when some awareness came over him and he realized for the first time there was something he'd been overlooking that needed to be understood.

Until we have that moment, what is it we're not seeing?

Believing in ghosts and hobgoblins may be a form of ignorance, but so is assuming that our brains and senses are presenting us with absolute reality. It is because of the way our senses take in data, the way our brains organize that data, and the way culture has conditioned our conceptual assumptions that the world appears to us as it does. What are we not seeing? What's right in front of us that's outside of our awareness? And by what criteria do we judge it to be "natural" or "supernatural"?





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