Monks and Miracles Part II

continued from Part I …

One time a layman named Kevaddha went to the Buddha and entreated him to perform some miracles in the wealthy town of Nalanda in order to get support for the Sangha. Three times he was refused with the answer,

This is not the way I teach Dhamma to the monks, by saying “Go monks, and perform superhuman feats and miracles for the lay people

When pressed a fourth time, he told Kevaddha there are three kinds of miracle, the first being:

Miracles of psychic power; multiplying ones body; passing through walls, mountains etc.; walking on water; flying through the air cross-legged; touching the sun and moon; and traveling as far as the Brahma Realms.

But if one were to see this kind of miracle and report it to someone skeptical and unbelieving they would think it was due to some kind of magic charm. Thus the Buddha says,

That is why, seeing the danger of such miracles, I dislike, reject and despise them.

Even though we have reports of miracles happening around the Buddha, this sutta accurately represents his consistent teaching on the matter. For instance, at one point a monk sees a ghost floating in the air being stabbed by demons. He reports this excitedly to the Buddha, who admonishes him for bringing it up, because though it was in fact real, it is not connected with the goal, and the telling of it to others might turn them away from the real teaching.

The second kind of miraculous power is that of telepathy,

Here a monk reads the minds of others, knowing their mental states, thoughts and ponderings, saying to them, “that is how your mind inclines, this is in your heart..”

Again this might get reported to others who might think it is a power due only to a special magic charm, and thereby not connected with Dhamma. Once again that is why the Buddha dislikes, rejects and despises talk on miraculous powers.

These days we are less likely to consider the power to be coming from a charm, and more likely to think of it as some kind of black magic, or conjuring illusion. Either way it is counter-productive. But there is another danger to consider.

You may have seen monks using ceremonial fans at times. In Thailand nowadays they are used at certain times during a chanting ceremony or giving of the precepts. The original aim of this curious tradition was to hide the face of the speaker, even though everyone present will have seen his face already, as a reminder to focus on the Dhamma and not the person presenting it. In India, a place of guru worship, this was a powerful message. Whenever talking of miracles, it inevitably gets tied up with speculations on this or that monk and what powers he might possess. Such speculations are rarely true, and are not really productive. Which brings us to the third miraculous power:

The Miracle of Instruction:

Here Kevaddha, a monk gives instruction as follows, “consider in this way, don’t consider in that. Direct your mind this way, do not direct it in that. Give that up, gain and persevere in this…” That is the miracle of instruction.

The sutta, number 11 of the Digha Nikaya, goes on. Kevaddha is told that he is fortunate to live at a time when a Tathagatha has arisen in the world, and made the teaching of enlightenment available. He tells a story of a monk who by means of psychic power traveled to all the heavenly realms looking for someone to teach him about enlightenment, and was finally directd by Braham himself to go and ask  the Buddha. Kevaddha is being told not to go looking for the miraculous, but to learn how to direct his mind, so that he will find out the answers for himself. This is the miracle of instruction.

So here we have it, the official word, that despite our best intentions and relentless curiosity for the miraculous, it is something that is more than likely to be counter-productive and therefore to be steered away from. The teachings themselves are clear and profound, and give direction for us to follow and find out for ourselves what enlightenment is. This is the crux of our religion, do not believe anyone, even the Buddha, but find out for yourself. Which is what makes this tradition the most rational I have come across.

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”