Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Third Eye: Plato, Buddhism and Rampa

I would like to dedicate this blog to several friends and relatives of mine who have recently experienced problems with the use of their physical eyes. May all sentient beings see well.

Entries in Wikipedia, despite the noble efforts of the workaholic Wikikids, are often riddled with incompatible, unsubstantiated and unique statements. Sometimes, it would seem, things are made up on the spot by the writers who add bits and pieces to them as they are constantly evolving. User-edited content, it's called. Sometimes over-edited seems more to the point when the product comes up on your computer screen. The following link provides what I see as a good example of this, much of it unintelligible, or marked by obscure (unnamed) sectarian concerns, and with little or no sense of how things may have developed within historical and cultural contexts.
(accessed on Valentines Day, 2007)

Rather than relying on the scattered ruminations of this nebulously authored Wikipedia entry, I will limit myself to three things: [1] the particular concept of three eyes in Graeco-Egyptian sources that wind up in Italy; [2] the multiple (3 or 5) eyes in Buddhist sources; [3] The Third Eye of T. Lobsang Rampa. For the first I rely entirely on an article by Michael J.B. Allen entitled "Marsilio Ficino on Plato's Pythagorean Eye." For the Buddhist sources I will rely almost entirely on an article by the late Alex Wayman published under the title "The Buddhist Theory of Vision."

One of a number of things glaringly absent from the Wikipedia treatment of the three eyes is this: There is not the least mention of Plato (428-347 BCE). Now Marsilio Ficino of Florence (1433-1499) was a great intellect among the humanists as well as a practitioner of theurgy (intentional ritual identification with divine beings for purposes magical or spiritual). He had a great impact on the subsequent history of western Hermeticism and occultism more generally. He was a neo-pagan in his own times.

Ficino composed a lengthy commentary on the Philebus of Plato in which the commentator says, "Among the wisest men of Greece arose the saying that Plato had three eyes: one with which he looked at human things, another at natural things, and another at divine things. The last was in his forehead, while the others were under his forehead." (Translation by Michael Allen.)

The Philebus dialog itself, we should carefully note, has nothing to say about extra eyes of any kind. We're talking about Ficino's commentary here.

As M. Allen points out, there were probably only two ancient sources from which Ficino could have derived his idea of Plato's three eyes. One comes from the school of Olympiodorus of Alexandria in about the 6th century, available to us today in a manuscript that was made in the 10th century. This source says, "It is said, in fact, that having found the theory of ideas he [Plato] dreamt that he had a third eye."

The other more ancient source is the one that was more surely known to Ficino. This work, titled Contra Celsum, written against a second-century opponent of Christianity, a pagan-pagan by the name of Celsus, was composed in 248 CE by the Alexandrian church father Origen. In the context Origen is asserting that Christianity doesn't after all make any claims that are all that outrageous, and as part of this argument he mentions some claims of pagans that he considers so utterly outrageous that they are scarcely worth considering (any outrageous claims of the Christians paling under the comparison). Along with the ivory thigh of Pythagoras (which is usually said to be made of gold), he mentions in passing "the third eye that Plato prided himself on possessing." For Origen, this third eye of Plato is just a "vulgar fantasy" (Allen, p. 173).

Both of our ancient sources attribute to Plato himself this idea that he had a third eye, while Ficino attributes it to other Greek sages. Returning to Ficino's statement, we may easily see that one of the two eyes that people usually are seen to have is for seeing the realm of nature (the created universe, divinely [or in any case not humanly] created), while the second eye is for seeing humans and humanly created things. The third eye, which floats above the other two, located in the forehead, is for seeing the divine. Boiling down Allen's learned discussion, the three eyes correspond to the natural world, the realm of human conduct (the moral sphere), and the metaphysical (the divine sphere). Ficino believed that Plato was able to see the natural world according to Heraclitus (objects of ordinary sense perception made up of the elements), the moral sphere of Socrates (subject for discursive reasoning), and the realm of pure Ideas of the Pythagoreans (intuitive intellect or imagination). In short, the third eye is the Pythagorean eye.


In Buddhist works, including the Pâli Nikâya literature which is often regarded as earlier, one finds a list of three types of eyes. These are: the Flesh Eye, the Divine Eye, and the Insight (Prajñâ) Eye. In Mahâyâna writings in Sanskrit these three are often expanded to a list of five, by adding two further eyes to the list. The added eyes are Dharma Eye and Buddha Eye, although some lists substitute Gnosis Eye for Dharma Eye. But already in the time of Vasubandhu we find some Mahâyâna writers speaking of three eyes, by which they mean: Insight Eye, Dharma Eye and Buddha Eye.

To review what it is that the five eyes see, in descending order: The Buddha Eye sees all knowable objects without any obstruction (and of course have no obstructions due to those knowable objects), which is what Buddhists generally mean by the omniscience of the completely Enlightened Buddha. The Dharma Eye is able to understand all scriptures (Dharma) as well as to identify the levels of spiritual development of other persons. The Insight Eye can discern the particular and general characteristics of all the knowable objects, while seeing their higher meanings. The Divine Eye sees the world of forms in its past states (the karmic prelude to the present condition) and in its approaching states (as compelled by karma enacted in the present time). The Flesh Eye sees only forms in their present state.

A significant point covered by Wayman is whether or not these eyes can function simultaneously. The simple answer is yes.

Asanga (4th or 5th century CE) explains the distinction between the Divine Eye and the Insight Eye by saying that the Divine Eye is able to range over all visible forms, while the Insight Eye is able to range over all forms both visible and invisible without obstruction. But the "visible forms" that may be seen by the Divine Eye include the subtle bodies of beings in the intermediate state (in the transition between death and rebirth). For while the intermediate body is impossible for ordinary living beings to see, it *is* visible to other intermediate bodies, so it is indeed possible (for certain beings) to see them, which makes them in truth vis-able. The Divine Eye can range throughout the Desire Realm (Kâma Dhâtu), and all the beings in it, which means in effect that those who have it may know what is going on anywhere from the six realms of Desire Realm gods all the way down to the sixteen hell realms.

Now the Buddha Eye doesn't correspond well with any of Plato's three eyes, because it is a post-Enlightenment eye that looks back with compassion on the entirely transcended world. Plato's Third Eye is for intuitive seeing, its gaze oriented upwards toward divine things. If we try to chart out a correspondence, which more or less works out, it could be:

Plato's Three Eyes (Ficino)>>>> Mahâyâna's Five Eyes

[1] Heraclitean Eye>>>> [1] Flesh Eye

[2] Socratic Eye >>>> [2-4] Divine Eye, Insight Eye, Dharma Eye

[3] Pythagorean Eye>>>> [2-4] Divine Eye, Insight Eye, Dharma Eye

— >>>> [5] Buddha Eye

Since the Socratic eye concerns mainly the world of human moral action, it only covers part of the territory of Mahâyâna eyes 2-4. Eyes 2-4 do include matters that, for the Platonic thinker, would have to be considered 'intuitive' or metaphysical, in so far as they are aimed at transcendence.

Published in 1956, T. Lobsang Rampa's book The Third Eye created a huge sensation. And for obvious reasons. I believe that still today it is the all-time bestselling book about Tibet in any language. In chapter seven of the book, the young Tibetan acolyte (who would only in later Rampa books take over the body of the Englishman Cyril Hoskins), in the presence of his teacher, has a hole drilled into his forehead, through the skin, flesh and skull. A splinter of wood is placed there and left for some time before being removed.

I won't go into the full bloody story. If you happen to be one of the few people in the universe who haven't read it yet, I strongly recommend it. There are good reasons for its remarkable success. Excellent writing is one. My purpose at the moment is to know what it meant for Rampa to have that third eye opened. What did it enable him to see?

TLR's teacher Mingyar Dondup (which must be, in real Tibetan spelling Mi-'gyur-don-grub, a person who seems otherwise unknown in the annals of Tibetan history) often told him that, “with the Third Eye open, I should be able to see people as they were.” In practice, as one may read in chapter fourteen, what having an open Third Eye meant for Lobsang Rampa was to be able to read the thoughts of other people more or less directly, but also to see their true feelings and intentions (and illnesses) by viewing the colors of their astral bodies. The Third Eye has a function which might at first seem to correspond to the 'intuitional' function of Plato’s third eye, but in fact it is entirely oriented toward the realm of human action. It has no transcending function, no ability to intuit higher transworldly metaphysical truths of any kind.

So, in conclusion, I would say that western traditions of a third eye, perhaps descending from Ficino's idea of Plato's Pythagorean eye, would, even if then only in part, better explain Rampa's Third Eye than any of the Buddhist eyes. A likely conduit between Ficino and Rampa would be Madame Blavatsky, who stated in her famous book The Secret Doctrine that there were once upon a time races of men who possessed physical third eyes, which were lost somewhere in the course of [devolution/]evolution. Rampa repeats a similar version of this third-eye-loss story in The Third Eye (see the Mutton book, p. 136). Whether or not Blavatsky was (and I really cannot say for sure one way or another) the absolute first to say that the pineal gland is the now dormant or dead third eye, the idea thrives today in popular occultism and new age circles.

One might object that Rampa's reputed ability to see astral bodies (ordinarily invisible) might correspond to the Buddhist idea of the Divine Eye's ability to see (ordinarily invisible) intermediate state beings. I am willing to grant that much. This notwithstanding, Rampa's eye places the intuition proper to the contemplation of divine things, the Pythagorean Eye, entirely in the service of the Socratic Eye, the realm of human moral action. The Third Eye tells how the Thirteenth Dalai Lama made use of Rampa's aura-reading abilities to judge the true intentions of Chinese and English visitors to his court.

The real original contribution by Rampa is, for the first time in human history, his associating the heightening of intuitive/clairvoyant powers with a physical operation. A hole in the head with a splinter stuck inside? Before the 1950's such an idea surely never occurred to anyone, not anyone in their right mind (well...). First Blavatsky had to physicalize it as a dormant organ before anyone could contemplate performing a physical action on it in order to wake it up.

Aside from Rampa, I've failed to mention anything that is actually found in that Wikipedia entry mentioned before. But my plan was to say something else entirely. None of the territory we have covered would seem to have much of anything to do with Shiva's third eye. If Shiva were to open his third eye completely it would send off a fiery blast obliterating the entire universe. A powerful weapon, it could also be aimed at evil. Not so for Plato's (Ficino's), Buddhism's or Rampa's eyes. Therefore: We simply must take care in distinguishing all these different eyes before we can see how to compare them in a way that makes any sense.

Those who want to awaken their intuition, atune their sight to metaphysical realms and the like are well advised not to take up the matter with their local optometrist. For this sort of thing the old ways are still the best. That's my considered opinion.

Some sources and several more highly recommended readings:

Michael J.B. Allen, "Marsilio Ficino on Plato's Pythagorean Eye," contained in MLN [Modern Language Notes], vol. 97, no. 1 (January 1982), pp. 171-182.

Gert-Jan Lokhorst, "Descartes and the Pineal Gland," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2006 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = accessed Valentines Day, 2007.

Donald S. Lopez, Jr., Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West, University of Chicago Press (Chicago 1998), Chapter Three, "The Eye," on pp. 86-113.

Karen Mutton, Lobsang Rampa: New Age Trailblazer, Hidden Mysteries, TGS Publishers (Frankston 2006).

Alex Wayman, "The Buddhist Theory of Vision," contained in a volume of his selected essays entitled Buddhist Insight, ed. by George R. Elder, Motilal Banarsidass (Delhi 2002), pp. 153-161.

This book was dictated by a blind 
Siamese cat named Mrs. Fifi Greywhiskers aka Feef.  
Sample it here.


  1. Hey, I really enjoy your blog and your sincere exploration of Rampa's work.

  2. Hey Dan:

    Speaking of PLato, did you ever notice the similarity between Shambhala's Kalapa and Plato's Kallipolis?


  3. Oh my goodness, no, Malcolm. Should I have noticed something that I missed? (Funny question, that one, the one just now.)

    Yours, Dan

  4. What a great blog! Thank-you. I'd like to contribute something to show my appreciation so let me tell you a little about eyes according to Tibetan medical theory: the eyes are sensory organs but to function they depend on the eye-consciousness and the relationship between the eye organ and the eye consciousness. You might ask yourself which eyes you see the images in your dreams with (since you're asleep and your eyes are shut) Well, the eye consciousness, of course. I won't venture into the realm of the 'third eye' according to Lobsang Rampa but I will say that no Tibetan I have ever met has drilled a hole into his forehead! Another point about eyes is that they are (according to Tib. Med)the 'flower' of the liver in other words, the most delicate and visible way of detecting a liver or gallbladder problem or rather a problem related to heat (Khrispa)energy...
    For more info re: Tibetan Medicine see:

  5. Dear Corinne,

    That's fascinating: The part about the liver 'blooming' in the eyes. Of course it makes very clear and obvious sense in the case of jaundice/hepatitis. I've noticed Pasang Yontan Arya says something about it in his article published in this conference volume:

    Alfredo Cadonna & Ester Bianchi, eds., Facets of Tibetan Religious Tradition and Contacts with Neighbouring Cultural Areas, Leo S. Olschki Editore (Florence 2002). I'll have to look this up again.

    I noticed virtually identical ideas, only stated a little differently, in a work of the Zhijé tradition. Given its place in the Zhijé Collection, I believe it ought to be considered a work by Patsab, two generations later than Padampa, and therefore somewhere around middle or 2nd half of the 12th century. Let me try out a quick hack translation of this passage (vol. 4, p. 255 ff.):

    [...] the body [made] of five elements.

    From it/them the five inner solid organs are generated.

    From pride and earth the spleen ('tsher ba) is generated.
    From envy and wind, the lungs (rlo ba).
    From hatred and fire, the heart.
    From lust and water, the kidneys ('khal ma).
    From ignorance and sky, the liver (mchin pa).

    From the five solid organs emerge five flowers.

    The flower of the heart is the tongue.
    If heat disorders invade the heart,
    the tongue & palate recede into the interior.

    The flower of the lungs is the nose.
    If disease invades the lung
    the nasal passages are blocked.

    The flower of the liver is the eye.
    If disease enters into it
    the eye becomes fevered.

    The flower of the kidneys is the ear.
    If disease enters into it
    there is hearing loss.

    The flower of the spleen is the lip.
    If disease enters the spleen
    the lips crack.
    I find this kind of medical/body cosmology totally intriguing for all kinds of reasons.

    Thanks for writing.


  6. Dear "Buy Viagra,"

    There are no advertisements anywhere in Tibeto-logic, and especially not in the comments section. Please stop trying. You waste all our time.

    Yours, D.

  7. Dear Malcolm,

    This from Wiki entry for Gallipoli:

    Gallipoli derives its name from the Greek "Καλλίπολις" (Kallipolis), meaning "Beautiful City."

    Doesn't Kalapa mean something in Sanskrit? There's a nice painting of this city at Don Croner's blog:

    Do you see any resemblance with Gallipoli?


  8. Many years ago, Edward de Bono worked with a group young school children (5-8 yrs old), assigning them problems to solve, like "how to weigh an elephant." He noted their solutions and drawings, and commented very interestingly on them. One problem he assigned was "How to improve a human being." A common strategy used by the children was to multiply-up human organs, including heads, arms, and ... eyes. Three eyes were often assigned as part of the "improvement" of the human being. Pp. 163 and 175 of his 1972 edition have interesting remarks about the mechanical, aesthetic and arithmetic criteria that the children used.

    In short, the augmentation of a human by adding a third eye can be considered amongst the simplest imaginative strategies for improving or augmenting a human being.


  9. Dear professor,

    Thank you for augmenting the discussion in an interesting new direction. It's our honor to have you here. I think it certain that the multiple arms of various Hindu and Buddhist deities are there mainly as a way of showing their multiple powers, especially since weapons or tools of one kind or another describe most of the things they are holding. There is a DVD store in the town where I live called The Third Ear, but I haven't ever heard of a second nose or a second mouth. The third eye may just be another instance of the strong reliance on the visual sense as our primary mode of knowing the world, which can of course be overrated, I think. I've noticed a trend in the last decade or so of attempting anthropologies of smell... so perhaps the second nose's time has come? When I was young, I remember other kids talking about how a teacher has 'eyes in the back of her head.' How to write words on the blackboard and keep track of what the students are doing at the same time? An elegant solution to the problem. Hmm. This leads me to reconsider those arguments in favor of intelligent design. Thanks for writing.


  10. I have a question about the "eyes." In Buddhist and Hindi literature the "third eye" is common with its location in the center of the forehead and its "powers" (to make this conversation simple). Some Goddesses/Gods in literature have four, five, six, seven or more eyes. For example, the Hindu Goddess White Tara has seven eyes (two forehead, third eye, both palms and the bottom of both feet). My question is this: what do the different locations of the eyes mean? We know that the third eye, which is located in the center of the forehead means, at least in Buddhst and Hindi literature, is the symbolof enlightenment and the ability to see the divine. But, what do the eyes on the palms mean? The feet? You speak of the "Buddha eye" and "Flesh eye" and so on and so forth but where are these eyes located? The palms? The feet? For example, is the "flesh eye" located in a palm? A foot?

    Some Gods/Goddesses in Hindu and Buddhist have less eyes (three, four, five) but the Goddess White Tara has seven so, therefore, she has more "powers." Would it be possible, by studying literature, to learn the location of the different "eyes?"

    Why would this be important? Perhaps more eyes is indication of further spiritual development. White Tara, the Goddess of compassion, has seven eyes and is more spiritually developed than a God/Goddess with "only" three or four eyes. Obviously, a Goddess of compassion would be quite spiritually developed. But what "eyes," either alone or together (most likely together) create the "great compassion?" Is the left foot eye the "flesh eye?" A right palm eye the "Buddhist eye" and so on and so forth.

    Some Gods/Goddesses "only" have three ir four eyes so does this mean they are less spiritually developed than a God/Goddess with seven? And what would one do to "open" more eyes? This is why it is important to discover the location of the eyes so that spiritual techniques can be used/developed to "open" other eyes, thus leading to higher spiritual development/awakening.

  11. Dear Anon,

    I don't know about identifying eyes located on different parts of the body with particular Buddhist categories of 'eyes.' I never heard this idea before, is all I am saying. Not necessarily discrediting it for that reason. I think eyes that are intended to be metaphorical for some other kind of thing should not be reduced to physical eyes, although of course they might be by people who fail to enjoy the poetry. I wonder why you shouldn't mention the thousand eyes of Avalokiteshvara in his eleven-headed thousand-handed form. And what about the thousand eyes of Rudra / Shiva, or of Indra? I think in these stories the many eyes just add to the intensity of the vision, or the like. In one story told by W. O'Flaherty they get their multiple eyes because of a desire to see more and more of a beautiful woman doing a seductive dance. There is a very interesting myth I once heard of Agni being punished by having his body covered with vaginal ‘wounds’ that then got turned into eyes (I can't find a source for this story at the moment, but I'll look for one and get back with you). I'm not sure opening large numbers of eyes would be a good thing. Not necessarily at least. Thanks for writing. Any more thoughts?


  12. I didn't mean to state "literal" eyes but metaphorical, of course. The goddess White Tara is a goddess of great compassion and she has seven eyes. Other Gods/Goddesses have less and do not share her compassion (metaphorically speaking about Gods/Goddesses). And yes, too many "eyes" would probably be bad, not because it is "bad" as in "evil" but perhaps because the God/Goddess with a thousand+ eyes could not handle such information (it would be difficult to handle the "powers" of a thousand+ eyes).

    I believe that the eyes are metaphorical, of course, kind of like Jungian archetypes. It seems that the sign for "awakening" or spiritual understanding is the same in every culture ("eyes").

    I also know that some Gods/Goddesses have multiple body parts in other areas (arms, heads, etc.) but I don't believe that these are representative of "spiritual awakening." Multiple arms, heads, legs, etc. probably have different meanings aside from spiritual awakening, which is represented by the "eyes" (metaphoricalky speaking).

    Many Gods/Goddesses have three or more eyes but not very many have a thousand+ eyes. I prefer to look at it from the Middle Way Buddhist perspective: seven eyes would be good (great compassion), no eyes would symbol no spiritual awakening and a thousand+ eyes would be a bit much, right?

  13. I am also thinking of cultural differences in reference to "eyes." Jesus had "holes" in his palms/feet and in the west, in a few spiritually inclined, "stigmatas" are felt (and "seen" internally, like "eyes") which would be the equivalent of having "eyes" in palms/feet, in my opinion. The only difference is the culture: in the west we have "stigmatas," which are spiritual wounds, and in the east we have eyes. This probably is because of the social/collective conscious and culture but they have the same significance and are VERY similar.

    If a person grows up with the unconscious belief of Buddhism/Hinduism then "eyes" would be more prominent. Likewise, if a person grows up with the unconscious belief of Christianity then "stigmatas" would be more common. "Stigmatas" are rare in the east but fairly common in the west. Likewise, eyes are rare in the west and more common in the east. The dominant religion would be the "symbol" of spiritual awakening (stigmata, eye, etc.)

    But, since Buddhism is being introducted to the west eyes are more common. Likewise, missionaries bring Christianity to the east.

    The locations are the same (palms, feet) and they have the same significance (Jesus was a great spiritual teacher). It appears to be the culture/unconscious that is the difference between eyes and stigmatas.

  14. It's actually the metaphorical dissonance that seems to hold between openness of the eyes (to new visions, to more intensive experience or heightened consciousness) and wounds (and the need to stay at home and recuperate) that bothers me. How do these go together? There are definitely Indian myths in which eyes make their appearance inside wounds. I won't deny that some deep meaning may be found in it in one way or another, whether it's Jungian or not.

  15. Oh, at this Wiki page you can find some referenced mentions of the story about Indra being cursed to receive a thousand 'wounds' that turned into eyes later on.

    Wounds besides turning into eyes can also be mouths that pronounce words, as happens in the story of the origins of medicine. Brahma was wounded in the cheek, opening a new mouth, and through it he pronounced the first healing mantra... (You can read about this in English in Gavin Kilty's translation of the Mirror of Beryl, p. 61).

  16. Yes, thank you for your help. I am looking for information about eyes/wounds for comparative religion, though my interest is mainly in Eastern religions and Jungian psychology (and Jung got many of his ideas from the East).



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