The Buddhist View of Miracles

Are they Real? Are They Useful?

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Statue at Angkor Wat, Cambodia. © Brett Worth / EyeEm / Getty Images

In brief, the Buddhist view of miracles is ambivalent. Some schools of Buddhism make much of them; others do not. The historical Buddha himself appears to have been ambivalent about miracles. He did not deny that miracles might occur, but he said they served no purpose to help people realize enlightenment

First, what are "miracles"? Dictionaries say they are events that cannot be explained by the laws of nature and are thought to be supernatural.

In theistic religions miracles are regarded as signs from or proof of God

Buddhism is, however, non-theistic; the intervention of gods, even assuming there are gods, serves no purpose. Indeed, the Buddha taught that events happen according to natural laws called "niyamas." Even karma is a kind of natural law of cause and effect that is not guided by divine powers but acts according to its own nature.

So miracles that are a "sign from God" make no sense in Buddhism. However, one does find mention of many kinds of supernatural events and practices in Buddhism. What do we make of those?

Miracles in Early Buddhist Scripture

There are examples in the  Sutta-pitaka of people who developed supernatural powers from mystical practices, but the Buddha did not encourage this. In fact, in the Vinaya-pitaka he forbade nuns and monks with supernatural abilities from showing them off in public. However, some early sutras portray the Buddha showing off supernatural powers himself.

 

In the Pali Kevatta (or Kevaddha) Sutta (Digha Nikaya 11) a layman named Kevatta urged the Buddha to display psychic and telepathic powers so that people would have more faith in him. But the Buddha refused, saying that a skeptic would assume he was using some charm or trick. The only miracle he would display was simply to teach the dharma.

 

However, in the Pali Brahma-nimantanika Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 49) the Buddha proved his superiority over a Brahmin named Baka and the trickster demon Mara, in part with a display of psychic power. In his commentary on this sutta, the monk and scholar Thanissaro Bhikkhu explained this discrepancy by saying the Buddha had the skill to know when such a display would "work" and when it might backfire. A modern reader also might wonder if this particular sutta is mostly a fable.

The Buddha taught that people should not accept teachings on blind faith just because they come from someone in authority (see the Kalama Sutta), and one might apply this to miracle-workers as well. Supernatural powers and wisdom are not the same thing, and in any event the whole point of the Buddha's teaching is to enable people to realize enlightenment for themselves through their own not-supernatural efforts.

Miracles and the Supernatural in Buddhism Today

Within the many schools of Buddhism in the world today you can find a vast spectrum of views on the supernatural. This is particularly true in parts of Asia in which laypeople have laced Buddhism with folktales and beliefs borrowed from other religions. Here, however, I'm going to address only the standard or "classic" teachings of various schools.

Theravada teachings tend to dismiss miracles and the supernatural as unnecessary, if not delusional. Theravada Buddhism stresses that enlightenment and Buddhahood come from one's own efforts and not from "outside" forces, including divine ones. 

Zen Buddhism is largely on the same page as Theravada regarding miracles. The traditional Zen attitude toward miracles was nicely expressed by Soyen Shaku, a Rinzai Zen teacher, in a letter written in 1896 to a Christian minister: 

I am anxious to know all that is good in Christianity and the significance of your dogmas, so that I may grow in a comprehension of truth, but I have not as yet been able to see that mankind can be benefited by believing that Jesus Christ performed miracles. I do not deny the miracles nor do I believe them; I only claim that they are irrelevant. The beauty and the truth of many of Christ's sayings fascinate me, but truth does not become clearer by being pronounced by a man who works miracles.

Esoteric Buddhism, also called Vajrayana, tends to take miracles and supernatural powers more seriously. Many teachers of the past were said to have supernatural powers. Legends of the Tibetan poet Milarepa say he could fly, for example. Today, it's my understanding that enlightened teachers are expected to be able to perform supernatural acts, although apparently not in public. However, it's possible the "supernatural acts" are sometimes understood metaphorically rather than literally. 

Devotional schools such as Pure Land and Nichiren Buddhism may seem to fall into "magical thinking," since they appear to rely on faith in an "other" -- either Buddha Amitabha or the power of the Lotus Sutra -- to realize enlightenment. However, long-time practitioners say their devotional practices provide a way to let go of limited views and cultivate the Buddha Nature that is already their own nature. In other words, faith in an "other" power can act as a skillful means to awaken "own power."