The "Fantastic Four" Versus the "Enlightened One"?

by Shen Shi'an, The Buddhist Channel, July 8, 2005

Singapore -- The "Fantastic Four" refers to four humans, who were caught in a cosmic storm in outer space, which radically transformed their DNA, accidentally granting them special "unnatural" powers.

First is Richard Reeds (Mr Fantastic), who attained high malleability of his body, which can stretch and shape at will. Interestingly, it reflects the "malleable" ingenuity of his mind, and his fault of often "stretching himself" too thin over commitment to his many projects, so much so that it affects his relationships.

Second is Sue Storm (Invisible Woman), who attained the power of invisbility and the ability to create force fields. This reflected her exasperations of being "overlooked", not being taken seriously for her work, and her protective instinct. Third is Johnny Storm (Human Torch), who can turn his body aflame with the power of flight. This reflected his burning desire to be a superstar in the centre of attraction. Last but not least is Ben Grimm (The Thing), who has superhuman strength and endurance, and a nearly impregnable rock-like hide. This reflected his latent will, strength and rage. With these parallels of their powers with respect to their mindstates, does this not echo the Buddha's teaching that the "mind is the forerunner of all states"?

Johnny muses about their new found powers, that maybe "it's like some higher calling". He asks, "What if we got these powers for a reason?" Good points, though he saw his flashy power at first as the perfect means of "getting girls and making money", before the four realise the noble cause of using their powers for justice. Are the powers really a calling? Did they have some reason for coming into being? Well, our experiences do not exactly tell us anything in particular (though they are effects from ripened causes and conditions). It was up to the perception and choice of the four, to use their wisdom, to make the best of the malleable "emptiness" of their situation. Thus, whether their powers were a curse or a blessing was entirely up to their interpretation.

The special abilities of the four are reminiscient of psychic abilities in Buddhism - the source of miraculous powers. Never heard of related stories? Picture one of them... With the permission of the Buddha to subdue an obstinate dragon-king giving trouble, Moggallana, the Buddha's disciple leading in psychic abilities, transformed himself into another dragon much larger than the dragon-king. He coiled himself round the dragon-king's body upon a cosmic mountain, pinning him down to humble him. The dragon-king was tamed, and eventually went to the Buddha for refuge. Now, imagine the Buddha's psychic abilities - they are many times greater than Mogallana's or the Fantastic Four's! If the Fantastic Four are "fantastic", the Buddha is simply "supreme"!

Psychic powers in Buddhism are summed up in six categories. First, Divyacaksus - the divine eye, which can instantaneously view anything material anywhere. Second, Divyasrotra - the divine ear, which can hear any sound anywhere. Third, Paracitta-jnana - the ability to know the thoughts of other minds. Fourth, Purvanivasanusmrti-jnana - the ability to know former lives of oneself and others. Fifth, Raddi-saksatkriya - the ability to be anywhere (teleportation, multiplication of forms) or do anything at will (shapeshifting, "defy" natural physics - such as walking on water, through walls and levitating). Sixth, Asravaksaya-jnana - the ability to eliminate all defilements (the extinction of spiritual "outflows"). The first five abilities are considered mundane, while only the last is supramundane, realised only when enlightened. It is its attainment that clearly differentiates the liberated from the mere "wizard"!

The first five abilites are natural "bonus side effects" of deepened mental cultivation, possible since "mind over matter". In the case of the Fantastic Four, their abilities were biological side effects, though similar to the fifth psychic power in category. The Buddha warned that one's ability to wield miraculous powers do not equate to the level of their spiritual power. An "entertaining" magician is seldom the wisest one. Be warned! Even misguided evil practitioners and maras can attain psychic powers!
The Buddha remarked that to use miracles to win converts is as lowly as using dancing girls to tempt others. (Johnny was guilty of that!) Himself the greatest master of all psychic powers, the Buddha forbade monks to openly display powers to impress and win converts - unless their usage is truly crucial, for instance, to save lives or the subdue the extremely stubborn. In the case of Johnny, we see how he continually got into trouble with the flamboyant display of his powers. Just as the Buddha disallowed monks showing off their powers, the other three of the Fantastic Four were outraged by Johnny's antics, which brought him unnecessary celebrity cult status. Likewise, cults of personality easily gather around those who indiscrminately display special powers. This wrong choice of focus usually leads to the spiritual downfall of both the "personality" and his followers, who are attracted to the "worldly goods" of miracles instead of actual "spiritual goodness".

The Buddhist attitude to psychic powers is a practical one. There is no use hankering after them when one is unenlightened, for they can become an ego-boosting trap - a wrong priority that increases greed and pride, hampering down-to-earth practice for liberation. And since these powers will be naturally attained when enlightened, why bother specifically going after them? This is famously reflected in the incident of the Buddha telling an ascetic, who could walk on water after 25 years of practice, that his achievement was insignificant, as anyone could simply ferry across waters! The only truly worthy miracle, according to the Buddha, is the miracle of instruction and realisation of the Dharma, which helps oneself and others rid suffering, to attain compassion and wisdom. This culminates in enlightenment - itself the greatest miracle possible!

As in the Buddha's advice in the Kevaddha Sutta (, "The only miracles that should be performed are these: when you see a man full of passion, craving and greed, and you teach him to free himself from passion, craving and greed; when you see that a man is a slave to hatred and anger and you use your powers to help him control his hatred and anger; when you come across a man who is ignorant and who cannot see the true nature of the world (everything in this world is impermanent, sorrowful and egoless) and you use your powers to help him overcome his ignorance. These are worthy 'miracles' you can perform." If so, let us start "performing" the truly supreme miracles today - by realising the Fantastic Four Noble Truths!