Abhijñā/Ṛddhi (Extraordinary Knowledge and Powers)
- LAST MODIFIED: 28 January 2013
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0112
- LAST MODIFIED: 28 January 2013
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0112
Abhijñā (Pali: abhiññā) is a Buddhist technical term that refers most specifically to a set of extraordinary powers and knowledge, including remembrance of past lives, telepathy, clairaudience, clairvoyance, telekinesis, various other “supernatural” powers, and, importantly, knowledge of the true nature of reality and certainty that one has attained awakening, the highest goal of the Buddhist path. Ṛddhi (Pali: iddhi) is a Buddhist term that literally means “success” or “accomplishment,” but it usually refers, in a technical sense, to a subset of powers contained within the overarching category of abhijñā, including flying through the air, passing through solid objects, walking on water, appearing in multiple places at the same time, visiting hells and heavenly realms, and so on. These and other related concepts (adhiṣṭhāna, vikurvaṇa, vidyā, etc.) cover a variety of “spiritual attainments” and “extraordinary knowledge and abilities,” some unique to buddhas, some shared with other Buddhist “saints,” some possessed by divinities and other “supernatural” beings, and some thought to be achievable by ordinary or gifted human beings through a variety of techniques, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist, ritual and otherwise, including the practices of meditation and asceticism. How can one best conceive of these sets of powers and types of extraordinary knowing—more broadly and in connection to a plethora of such powers and knowledge both within the Buddhist tradition and in closely related historical traditions in South, East, and other parts of Asia, not to mention contemporary Europe and North America? These remain issues lacking consensus among scholars, particularly the place and significance of these powers. Various terms are used to describe or define abhijñā, such as supernormal faculty, higher knowledge, superpower, super-knowledge, yogic power, mystic wonder, thaumaturgy, wonderworking, supernatural gnosis, and so forth. For ṛddhi, one commonly finds descriptive terms such as psychic power, magical power, miraculous power, supernatural power, superhuman power, mystical ability, and ṛddhi power, among others. These various translations attest to some of the slipperiness of the terms themselves, as well as the lack of consensus among scholars as to their proper place within Buddhist path theory and the tradition as a whole. In some ways, this lack of scholarly consensus reflects an apparent ambiguity within some classical expressions of the Buddhist tradition as to the role and significance of these powers and modes of extraordinary knowing. Appreciating their broader significance across different times and contexts thus requires looking comparatively and at narrative, art, and ethnographic analyses of contemporary practice, in addition to the varied evidence of classical scripture and scholastic or philosophical works.
There are currently no fully up-to-date, general overviews of monograph length devoted to the topic of abhijñā and ṛddhi and their place and significance in Buddhism broadly considered; that is, inclusive of the Buddhist traditions of India, Southeast Asia, Tibet, China, Japan, and so on. Fiordalis 2008 is a recent, though meager, first-blush attempt to treat these concepts in relation to each other and other relevant concepts in Indian Buddhist doctrine and literature, but it suffers from many of the typical problems that afflict doctoral dissertations. Although dated in many respects, Lindquist 1935, in German, is a noteworthy earlier attempt to see the Buddhist category of abhijñā as equivalent to the “Hindu” category of siddhi, and to view both within a framework provided by modern psychology. La Vallée Poussin 1931, in French, is a short but provocative commentary by a major scholar on the role and significance of wonderworking powers to the traditional conception of the Buddha. It also usefully reflects the state of the argument concerning their significance in his times—and still, to a degree, in ours. Granoff 1996 is a thought-provoking recent study of the meaning and purpose of miracle and supernatural power in Buddhism. Even though it contains some of the common shortcomings of multiauthor edited volumes, Jacobsen 2012 represents the most current and comprehensive treatment of the topic of extraordinary powers across a variety of Indian and India-inspired religious traditions, including Hindu yoga, Buddhism, Jainism, Tantric Shaivism, Indian Sufism, and so on. Three chapters are specifically devoted to Buddhist sources: “The Cultivation of Yogic Powers in the Pāli Path Manuals of Theravāda Buddhism” by Bradley S. Clough, “The Wondrous Display of Superhuman Power in the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa: Miracle or Marvel?” by David V. Fiordalis, and “On the Appearance of Siddhis in Chinese Buddhist Texts” by Ryan Richard Overbey. In addition, Clough 2010, which is part of a collection of six journal articles edited by David Fiordalis (see Fiordalis 2010), surveys the various abhijñā in the Pali canonical sources. This collection includes several other articles of relevance to the topic of abhijñā and ṛddhi in Buddhism, including what is probably the most significant recent contribution, Gómez 2010.
Clough, Bradley S. “The Higher Knowledges in the Pāli Nikāyas and Vinaya.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 33.1–2 (2010): 409–433.
An excellent survey and discussion of the abhijñās, including the basic list of ṛddhis, in the Pali literature that is still often considered to be the baseline for discussion of early Buddhism: the four main Nikāyas and the Vinaya. Part of a special section edited by David Fiordalis, titled “Miracles and Superhuman Powers in South and Southeast Asian Buddhist Traditions” (Fiordalis 2010). Actually published in 2011.
Fiordalis, David V. “Miracles and Superhuman Powers in South Asian Buddhist Literature.” PhD diss., University of Michigan, 2008.
A recent provisional attempt to explore the indigenous concepts of abhijñā, ṛddhi, and prātihārya (miracle, marvel), and their interrelationship in Indian Buddhist literature up to approximately the 5th century CE, primarily through citation and study of selected representative works of narrative, scripture, and scholasticism.
Fiordalis, David V., ed. “Miracles and Superhuman Powers in South and Southeast Asian Buddhist Traditions” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 33.1–2 (2010): 381–554.
Collection of six articles that together make up a fairly coherent introduction to the topic. These articles address both classical Buddhist literature as well as modern iterations in Southeast Asia (Burma and Thailand). For individual citations, see Clough 2010, Fiordalis 2010 (cited under Reading Others’ Minds), Gómez 2010, Pranke 2010 (cited under Buddhist Ideals of Human Perfection), Scheible 2010 (cited under Southeast Asian Traditions), and Scott 2010 (cited under Women). Actually published in 2011.
Gómez, Luis O. “On Buddhist Wonders and Wonderworking.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 33.1–2 (2010): 513–554.
Part of a special section edited by David Fiordalis, titled “Miracles and Superhuman Powers in South and Southeast Asian Buddhist Traditions” (Fiordalis 2010). Starting out as a commentary on the other articles in the collection, this study, by one of the figures most associated with the topic over the past few decades, makes an original contribution in part by drawing upon recent theoretical approaches in the cognitive theory and psychology of religion. See also Gómez 1977 (cited under Multiplication and Magical Creation). Actually published in 2011.
Granoff, Phyllis. “The Ambiguity of Miracles: Buddhist Understandings of Supernatural Power.” East and West 46.1–2 (1996): 79–96.
Discusses the meaning and purpose of supernatural power in Buddhism. Offers the argument that Buddhist attitudes to miracles and supernatural power varied depending upon whether the intended audience was Buddhist or non-Buddhist.
Jacobsen, Knut A., ed. Yoga Powers: Extraordinary Capacities Attained through Meditation and Concentration. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2012.
A substantial, multiauthor collection comprising seventeen chapters treating the topic of extraordinary powers in various Indian and India-inspired religious traditions, including Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism. The overall work slants toward Hindu and Yoga studies, but there is still impressive breadth.
La Vallée Poussin, Louis de. “Le Bouddha et les abhijñās.” Le Muséon 44 (1931): 283–298.
Brief, largely suggestive article on the significance of mastery of abhijñā and ṛddhi to the traditional meaning of the Buddha, especially in relation to the image of him as a rational philosopher. Reflects the scholarship of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to some extent. For contextualization of La Vallée Poussin’s position, see Gómez 2010 and the works referenced in footnote 3 of that article.
Lindquist, Sigurd. Siddhi und Abhiññā: Eine Studie über die klassischen Wunder des Yoga. Uppsala, Sweden: Uppsala Universitets Årsskrift, 1935.
An early study devoted to the topic, interpreted through the lens of modern psychology. The author argues that the various abhijñā and ṛddhi are not to be taken literally, but instead are equivalent to illusory, subjective mental states entered through hypnosis and techniques of mental training. For a recent assessment of Lindquist, see Overbey 2012 (cited under East Asian Traditions).
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