Miracles in Buddhism
The English word miracle (from the Latin miraculum, meaning “object of wonder”) has traditionally been used in a Christian context
to refer to an extraordinary event that cannot have been brought about by human power alone or by the ordinary workings of nature and hence must be ascribed to the intervention of God.
For most Christian theologians, only God can perform miracles; the function of Saints, in heaven close to God, is to act as intermediaries on behalf of a supplicant to request a miracle from God.
Hence, according to a strict Christian interpretation of the word, there are no miracles in the Buddhist tradition.
A looser definition of the term, however, harking back to its original meaning as “object of wonder,” allows miracles to be understood as extraordinary events
- that, because they cannot be explained by ordinary human powers or the everyday functioning of nature, evoke a sense of wonder.
This looser definition proves useful to describe a wide variety of phenomena, including
- omens and other extraordinary changes in the natural world,
- acts of the Buddha and his disciples, and
- supernormal powers acquired through Meditation
- all common throughout Buddhist literature.
Paradigmatic miracles occur in accounts of the life of the Buddha, well-known wherever Buddhism is practiced.
Although there is much diversity in detail, accounts of the Buddha’s birth generally describe it as a marvellous event, different in almost every way from an ordinary birth:
The Buddha was conceived in a dream in which his mother saw a white elephant enter her womb, an event accompanied by earthquakes and other auspicious omens.
Unlike other women in ancient India who gave birth sitting down, the Buddha’s mother gave birth standing up, the infant emerging not from the womb, but from his mother’s right side, causing her no pain.
At birth the infant was bathed by streams of water that fell from the sky, after which he immediately took 7 steps and declared in a loud voice, “I am the chief in the world.”
Later, as the child matures, marvellous events accompany him throughout his life as he receives the assistance of gods who through various devices help him to pursue his fated life as a seeker of truth.
At the moment when Śākyamuni is Enlightened and becomes a Buddha, the earth shakes, the heavens resound with the sound of drums, and flowers fall from the sky.
As a Buddha Śākyamuni was believed to possess the standard set of supernormal powers or Abhijñā (Higher Knowledges) accruing to those of high spiritual attainments, including
- the power to know details of his previous lives,
- the ability to see the past lives of others,
- the power to read minds,
- and other magical powers, such as the ability to fly.
In the course of his teachings, the Buddha demonstrates these powers repeatedly,
frequently, for instance, recounting events that took place in the previous lives of members of his audience in order to explain the workings of Karma.
Similarly, the Buddha performed 2 famous miracles at the city of Śrāvastī in order to win converts.
After admonishing his own disciples for displaying their magical powers in public, the Buddha declared that, in their place, he would perform a miracle at the foot of a mango tree to demonstrate his superiority to proponents of false teachings:
On hearing this, his opponents uprooted all of the mango trees in the vicinity so that he would be unable to fulfil his vow.
In response, the Buddha took the seed of a ripe mango, and no sooner planted it in the ground than it sprouted and in an instant grew into an enormous tree.
This done, he fulfilled his promise to perform a miracle by the mango tree when he rose into the sky and emitted water and fire from his body in spectacular fashion.
Finally, the Buddha’s Nirvāṇa is accompanied by a number of marvellous events:
When the Buddha predicted his own death, vowing to enter Nirvāṇa in 3 months time, the Earth quakes once again. 3 months later, as the Buddha lay down to die, flowers fell from the sky.
At the moment he entered Nirvāṇa, there was a great earthquake and loud peals of thunder. some of those present then attempted to light the funeral pyre, but were unable to do so.
Later, when the disciple Mahākāśyapa, who had been away, arrived on the scene, the pyre miraculously caught fire of itself, leaving behind relics that were themselves later attributed with miraculous powers.
Many attempts, of varying degrees of sophistication, have been made to root out all that is miraculous, and hence historically suspect, in accounts of the Buddha’s life
in order to derive a more sober, believable narrative, or to interpret miracles in the Buddha’s life as rhetorical tools for explaining Buddhist doctrines.
For the vast majority of Buddhists, however, marvellous events were and are an integral part of any biography of the Buddha.
In general, Buddhists have interpreted these literally, as signs of the Buddha’s unique attainments.
Indeed, some of the phenomena described above, such as the Buddha’s power to see the previous lives of others, are recounted in such a matter-of-fact manner that they are miraculous only in a weak sense.
In other words, however fantastic such powers may appear to a modern sceptic, from the perspective of the tradition, they are more common-sense than marvellous.
Many of the Buddha’s disciples were credited with supernormal powers and associated with miraculous events:
Mahākāśyapa, as a product of his determined cultivation of the most trying austerities, could fly. Śāriputra attained the “dharma eye,” allowing him to perceive the past lives of others.
Mahā Maudgalyāyana, called “foremost of those who have supernormal powers,” could vanish from one place and appear in another in an instant.
Later figures in Indian Buddhism possessed marvellous powers as well:
Upagupta, for instance, to prove a point, once caused a drought of 12 years.
The powerful King Aśoka (3rd century B.C.E.), who was at first hostile to Buddhism but eventually became its greatest patron, was, according to legend, converted upon seeing the supernormal powers of a monk his executioners could not kill.
Miracles continued to play a prominent role in the history of Buddhism as it spread beyond India. Legends of the founding of Buddhism in other lands are typically tied to miraculous events:
In Śrī Lanka, it is said that the Buddha himself visited the island at a time when it was dominated by demons:
Traveling directly to a grand meeting place of these demons, the Buddha hovered above them in the sky, calling up rain, winds, and darkness, and thereby terrifying the demons to such an extent that they conceded dominion of the island to him.
In China, the introduction of Buddhism was linked to Emperor Ming of the Han dynasty (r. 58-75) who, according to the legend, had a marvellous dream in which he saw a golden deity flying through the air:
The following day, when he asked his ministers to explain the dream, one informed him that he had heard of a deity called the Buddha whose body was of golden colour and who could fly.
The Emperor then dispatched envoys to obtain more information about the Buddha, thereby initiating the introduction of Buddhism to China.
In Japan, the introduction of the first Buddhist image was followed by widespread pestilence, prompting the Emperor to have the image destroyed:
This act was followed by the miraculous appearance of a large log of camphor wood that emitted the sound of Buddhist chants.
Impressed, the Emperor gave orders that the wood be fashioned into 2 Buddhist images, thus assuring the successful introduction of Buddhist devotion to Japan.
Throughout the Buddhist world, accounts of holy Buddhist monks are laced with miraculous events and descriptions of their marvellous powers:
Many of these are patterned on accounts of the Buddha, noting a monk’s auspicious birth and the omens that followed his death:
It is said, for instance, that when the prominent Chinese monk Hongren (602-675) was born a bright light filled the room, and that when he died the sky turned dark and mountains trembled, as they did every year on the anniversary of his death.
Other monks are credited with the standard supernormal powers of being able to read minds, levitate, and recognize the past lives of others.
For example, according to one biography, the Korean monk Won Hyo (617-686) once appeared at one hundred places at the same time.
Holy monks are often thought to have special powers over nature, taming wild animals and changing the weather:
The 12th century Vietnamese monk Tinh Giol, for instance, received the title Rain Master after provoking rain during a serious drought, something other eminent monks of the time were unable to accomplish.
The Japanese monk Kūkai (774-835) was also said to be able to provoke rain through his mastery of Buddhist ritual.
To this day, stories circulate of miraculous events associated with prominent or mysterious monks, nuns, and lay Buddhist figures, living and dead.
In addition to miracles provoked by individuals, countless miracles are associated with Buddhist objects:
Buddhist scriptures are said at times to protect their owners from fire, Buddhist images come to life in dreams to offer warnings and advice, and prayers to relics result in miraculous cures.
Such stories permeate Buddhist culture, only a small portion of the total ever being written down or otherwise reaching beyond the local level.
Scholastic Buddhist literature does not group all of the phenomena discussed here into one category; there is no well-attested Buddhist term equivalent to miracle:
Buddhist writers have expounded at length on the classic set of supernormal powers accruing to holy men, but have shown less interest in proposing a general theory of miracles.
In some cases, the miraculous was explained according to local theories:
In East Asia, for instance, recourse was often made to the Chinese concept of resonance (ganying)
by which animals, the weather, and so on respond to a person of high attainments or an event of extraordinary significance just as one string on a musical instrument responds naturally to another.
More frequently, wondrous events are simply recorded without a sustained attempt at explanation.
In fact, many Buddhist texts and teachers make a point of downplaying the significance of supernatural events:
They insist that supernormal powers are a by-product of cultivation and not its goal. The Buddha himself upbraided his disciples for displaying their powers in public.
Nonetheless, the allure of the marvellous made it an exceptional rhetorical tool:
That is, Buddhist texts are at pains to demonstrate the extraordinary powers of, for instance, the Buddha, before going on to dismiss these powers as child’s play and peripheral to the far greater goals of Enlightenment and Release from suffering.
There has never been a strong tradition of scepticism toward miracles within Buddhist circles, though those hostile to Buddhism were always ready to discount Buddhist claims to the marvellous.
For the most part, Buddhists have always accepted the supernormal powers of the Buddha and the potential of Buddhist figures and objects to provoke miracles.
In modern times, however, it has become commonplace for Buddhist writers to strip away miraculous events from ancient Buddhist writings in an attempt to reveal a historical core to a given legend:
While not in itself unreasonable, this approach is often accompanied by the assumption that miraculous stories emerge in response to the demands of an unsophisticated laity, steeped in popular superstition.
In fact, for most of Buddhist history, miracle stories have been popular at all social levels and accepted as literally true by even the most erudite of monks.
The future of Buddhist miracles is uncertain:
Even Buddhist leaders sceptical of accounts of miracles have not made concerted efforts to disprove Buddhist miracles or discourage the propagation of stories of marvellous, supernatural events associated with Buddhism, suggesting that miracles will continue to occupy a place of importance in Buddhist culture for the foreseeable future.