Miracles of Gautama Buddha

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The miracles of Gautama Buddha refers to supernatural feats and abilities attributed to Gautama Buddha by the Buddhist scriptures. The feats are mostly attributed to supranormal powers gained through meditation, rather than divine miracles.[1] Supranormal powers the historic Buddha was said to have possessed and exercised include the six higher knowledges (abhiññā): psychic abilities (iddhi-vidhā), clairaudience (dibba-sota), telepathy (ceto-pariya), recollection of one's own past lives (pubbe-nivāsanussati), seeing the past lives and rebirths of others (dibba-cakkhu), and the extinction of mental intoxicants (āsavakkhaya).[2][3] Miracles found in Mahayana Sutras generally play a more direct role in illustrating certain doctrines than miracles found in the Pali Canon.[4]

Stories of Gautama Buddha's miracles include miraculous healings, teleportation, creating duplicates of himself, manipulation of the elements, and various other supernatural phenomena. Many of the Buddha's followers, as well as some non-Buddhist hermits and yogis who attained high states of meditative absorption, were also said to have had some of these same abilities.[1][2] According to Buddhist texts, the Buddha frequently utilized or discussed these abilities, although he warned about the dangers of being attached to these powers and emphasized the "miracle of instruction" as the more favorable method of conversion.[1][2]

Pre-Enlightenment[edit]

Miraculous Birth[edit]

The infant Buddha taking the Seven Steps. Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara.

It is said that immediately after Gautama's birth, he stood up, took seven steps north, and uttered:

"I am chief of the world,

Eldest in the world. This is the last birth.

There will be [henceforth for me] no more re-becoming."[5]

Furthermore, every place the baby Gautama placed his foot, a lotus flower bloomed.[6]

The Still Shadow[edit]

One day, when Prince Siddhartha's father took his young son out into a village area for a plowing festival, the would-be Buddha fell asleep under a tree. As time went by and the sun moved across the sky the tree's shadow miraculously stayed still, keeping the young prince under the shade for the duration of his nap.[7][8]

The Floating Hairknot[edit]

After Prince Siddhartha left the palace, he cut his hair to signify his future life as an ascetic in search of enlightenment. After cutting his hair, the would-be Buddha took hold of his recently cut hairknot and declared "If I am to become a Buddha [an enlightened one], let them stay in the sky; but if not, let them fall to the ground". Throwing the hairknot, it went a distance into the air and then stopped, floating in midair.[9]

The Golden Bowl[edit]

After giving up extreme asceticism prior to his enlightenment, the would-be Buddha then accepted a meal of rice pudding in a golden bowl from a village girl named Sujata. It is said that when he finished, he took the golden bowl and threw it in the river, declaring, "If I am to attain enlightenment, let this bowl go upstream." The golden bowl then flowed upstream.[10]

Psychic Abilities[edit]

Following his enlightenment, the Buddha was said to have possessed and discussed several supranormal powers attainable through meditation. Such abilities include walking on water, walking through walls, becoming invisible, levitation, and making copies of himself. The Buddha discusses these abilities in several texts such as the Samaññaphala Sutta (DN 2),[11] Kevatta Sutta (DN 11),[12] the Lohicca Sutta (DN 12)[13] and the Mahasakuludayi Sutta (MN 77).[14] In the Iddhipada-vibhanga Sutta, the Buddha states:

"When the four bases of spiritual power have been developed and cultivated in this way, a bhikkhu (monk) wields the various kinds of spiritual power: having been one, he becomes many; having been many, he becomes one; he appears and vanishes; he goes unhindered through a wall, through a rampart, through a mountain as though through space; he dives in and out of the earth as though it were water; he walks on water without sinking as though it were earth; seated cross-legged, he travels in space like a bird; with his hands he touches and strokes the moon and sun so powerful and mighty; he exercises mastery with the body as far as the brahmā world."[15]

The Buddha states that such powers like walking through walls, levitation and telepathy can be developed through concentration, but a prerequisite to them is the attainment of the four jhanas, or higher states of meditative absorption.[16][17] Regardless, the Buddha described most of these powers as being merely mundane. It is only the power of the extinction of the mental defilements (āsavakkhaya) attained by Arahants that was supramundane and leading to the end of suffering.[17][2][18][19]

The Twin Miracle[edit]

The Twin Miracle is considered to have been the Buddha's foremost miracle.[20] Unlike some of his other attributed abilities, it said that only Buddhas had the ability to perform the Twin Miracle.[21] The miracle itself is said to have been performed twice, once when the Buddha visited his home town of Kapilavastu, and another during a miracle contest in Sāvatthī.[22][23]

According to Buddhist texts, the Buddha performed the miracle at Sāvatthī after being challenged by a group of six leaders of rival religious sects.[24] The Buddha starts by creating a jeweled walkway in midair, and then emits fire from the top half of his body and water on the lower half and then starts to alternate them.[25] The fire and water then shoot up to illuminate the cosmos while the Buddha teaches the Dhamma to the observers. In one version of the story, he creates several duplicates of himself that fill the air, with some walking, lying down, and sitting.[26] At the conclusion of the miracle, it is the rival religious leaders' turn to perform a miracle but they flee. Following the miracle, the Buddha proceeds to create a single duplicate of himself and then have the duplicate ask him questions which he would answer in order to teach the observing audience.[26][25]

Miracles in the Pali Canon[edit]

Hiding Yasa in Plain Sight[edit]

Soon after giving his first sermon to the five ascetics who would become the first five Buddhist monks, the Buddha encounters and teaches the young noble Yasa until he attains sottapanna, a low stage of enlightenment. Not seeing his son in the household, Yasa's father later follows his footprints to the Buddha's location. Seeing Yasa's father approaching the Buddha exercises supranormal powers so that although Yasa is in plain sight from his father, Yasa's father is unable to see him. The Buddha then teaches Yasa's father with Yasa a short distance away, still invisible to his father. This results in Yasa's father becoming the first lay follower of Gautama Buddha and Yasa attaining arahantship, or the highest stage of enlightenment, upon hearing the Buddha's sermon to his father. The Buddha then ceases his supranormal feat and makes Yasa visible to his father again.[27]

The First Twin Miracle and the Miraculous Rain[edit]

When the Buddha returned to his home kingdom of Kapilavastu following his enlightenment, he levitates and performs a version of what would become known as the Twin Miracle. This results in the Buddha's tribesmen, the Shakya Clan, bowing to him in respect. After the Buddha returns to the ground and sits down it suddenly starts raining, with the rain only falling on people who wanted to get wet, and no rain falling on those who wanted to remain dry. Following this event, the Buddha tells the Vessantara Jātaka.[22][23]

Outpacing Angulimala[edit]

One day while meditating, the Buddha sees through meditative vision that the serial killer Aṅgulimāla will kill his own mother later that day unless the Buddha intervenes. In order to prevent Aṅgulimāla from committing the grave sin of killing his own mother, the Buddha intercepts him right before he can commit the heinous act and causes the serial killer to go after him instead.[28] As Aṅgulimāla is chasing after him, the Buddha employs supranormal powers so although Aṅgulimāla is running as fast as he can, he cannot catch up with the Buddha who is walking calmly.[29] One text states the Buddha used his powers to contract and expand the earth, thus keeping a distance with Aṅgulimāla.[30]

Teaching Khema Impermanence[edit]

The Buddha meets Khema, a beautiful consort of King Bimbisara who would later become one of his chief female disciples. The beautiful woman was disinterested in spiritual matters given her life of sensual indulgence. So, as the beautiful Khema approaches the Buddha, he conjures up an image of an even more beautiful woman in front of her and then ages the image into an old woman before her very eyes. Khema, who was very vain, then comes to understand the nature of impermanence and lets go of her attachment to her looks.[31][32]

Knowing Anathapindika's Real Name[edit]

As his future patron Anathapindika approached him for the first time, the Buddha called him by his birth name "Sudatta", which was not known to the public. Surprised to hear his real name, Anathapindika then concluded it could only be the Buddha who was calling him and went forward.[33][34][35]

Ascending to Heaven and Creating a Duplicate[edit]

The Buddha ascends to Tavatimsa Heaven to preach the Abhidhamma to his deceased mother. He recites the Abhidhamma to the devas for the full rains-retreat without stopping, taking a break everyday to go on alms-round and eat. During the daily lunch hour, the Buddha creates a duplicate of himself and orders it to preach in his place while he is away.[36]

Teleporting Across the Ganges[edit]

The Mahaparinibbana Sutta recounts a story of the Buddha and his monks crossing the Ganges River by disappearing and reappearing on the other side, rather than searching for boats or creating rafts as other people were doing.[37][38]

Challenging the Brahma Being[edit]

In the Brahma-nimantanika Sutta, the Brahma being Baka had become deluded into thinking that he was immortal and that he had attained the highest state. The Buddha then travels to the Brahma realm of Buddhist cosmology to correct Baka's views by displaying various powers such as identifying realms the Brahma was not aware of, identifying Mara whenever he possessed a member of Baka's assembly, identifying the full extent of Baka's abilities, and making himself invisible to Baka Brahma and his assembly to prove that the Buddha's powers were greater than Baka Brahma's.[39]

Taming the Drunken Elephant[edit]

The Buddha's jealous cousin Devadatta sets loose the drunken elephant, Nalagiri, to trample the Buddha. In one account of the story, when Nalagiri charged at the Buddha, the Buddha created an image of two lions and a sea of fire in front of the elephant to frighten it into staying still.[40][41] In another account, the Buddha let out a majestic roar which caused Nalagiri to stop.[42] The Buddha then tames the elephant with loving-kindness.[43]

The Miraculous Healing[edit]

The faithful laywoman Suppiyā had promised to provide meat to an ailing monk. After realizing there was no meat available at the market that day, she cut some flesh from her own thigh to make the offering and hid her injury. Knowing what had happened, the Buddha asked Suppiyā be brought to him. Upon seeing the Buddha, Suppiyā's wound healed, with the laywoman's flesh returning to what it was before with no scarring. Afterwards, the Buddha sets a rule forbidding his monks from accepting offerings of human flesh.[44][45]

Putting Out the Forest Fire[edit]

The Buddha was walking through the forests of Magadha with a large assembly of monks when a large forest fire breaks out. While monks that had not attained any stages of enlightenment panicked, the enlightened monks of the assembly remained calm and told the unenlightened monks of the assembly that there is nothing to fear when walking with the Buddha. The monks then gather around the Buddha, who had stopped at the sight of the fire. As the fire rages toward them, the fire miraculously extinguishes whenever the flames approached a distance of 16 lengths around the Buddha. The Buddha credits this feat to an act of Sacca-kiriya, or a solemn declaration of truth, he made in a past life and then tells the Vattaka Jataka.[46][47][48]

Miracles in Mahayana Sutras[edit]

Miracles generally play a larger role in Mahayana Buddhism than in Theravada Buddhism, with miracles often being used to directly illustrate specific Mahayana doctrines.[4] The miracles found in Mahayana Sutras typically have much more symbolism and put more emphasis on the direct use of supranormal powers to teach and help other living beings.[4][49]

Showing the Buddha Field[edit]

In the Vimalakirti Sutra, the Buddha performs a miracle to display the "Buddha field" to people on earth. He does this to show the purity of mind bodhisattvas must attain to reach Buddhahood. Various bodhisattvas from the sutra then take over the narrative and perform various supernatural feats such as switching bodies, magically transporting objects and transformation in order to teach about Mahayana concepts such as non-duality.[50]

Shaking the Earth and Bringing Light[edit]

In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha shakes the earth and brings forth a ray of light which illuminates thousands of "Buddha-fields" in the east.[51][52] According to the bodhisattva Manjusri from the Sutra, the single ray of light represents that the various practices and paths of Mahayana Buddhism can be met with a consistent meaning throughout the cosmos.[53][54] The light also symbolizes the equivalence of all the buddhas. Manjusri points out in the Sutra that he recognized the light from a previous buddha who performed the same feat in the distant past and that the feat shows that Gautama Buddha is about to expound his ultimate teaching.[53][54]

Levitating Across the Ganges[edit]

In the Lalitavistara Sūtra, shortly after his enlightenment the Buddha heads to Varanasi to deliver his first sermon. As he reaches the Ganges River he approaches a ferryman to cross the river, who demands he pay the fee to cross the river. The Buddha responds by saying that he has no money on him and proceeds to cross the river through levitation.[55]

Buddhist view on miracles[edit]

Most of the Buddha's miracles are seen in Buddhism as being the result of extraordinary psychic abilities gained through advanced meditation, rather than miraculous powers.[1] According to Buddhist texts many of the Buddha's followers, as well as some non-Buddhist hermits and yogis who attained high meditative states, also had some of these same abilities.[56][57] While the Buddha still utilized supranormal powers at times and mentions them as signs of spiritual progress, he also described them as dangerous and something that could lead to self-glorification.[1][2] When the Buddha encountered a non-Buddhist yogi who proudly showed off his ability to cross a river by walking on water (an ability the Buddha was also said to have had), the Buddha rebuked him and said the yogi's feat was worth little more than the few cents it cost to cross the river by ferry.[58][59][60] The Buddha laid down a rule forbidding his monks from showing off supranormal powers to laypeople and compares conversion through such powers unfavorably with converting through teaching.[61]

In the Kevatta Sutta, the Buddha describes there being three types of miracles: the miracle of psychic powers, the miracle of telepathy, and the miracle of instruction.[62] While the Buddha acknowledged the existence of the first two miracles, he stated a skeptical person could mistake them for magic charms or cheap magic tricks.[39][12][63][62] Instead, the Buddha praised the "miracle of instruction" as the superior miracle.[62] According to the Kevatta Sutta, the miracle of instruction can lead the observer to harmlessness, virtue, and meditation; and can even eventually lead observers to the attainment of the powers of the first two miracles for themselves.[12][62]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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Further reading[edit]

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