To many ears, the expression “Buddhist miracles” remains “strangely hybrid,” adopting a phrase that Matthew Kapstein used not so long ago to describe “Buddhist philosophy” in Reason’s Traces (Boston: Wisdom, 2001, p. 4). Yet, as many are now growing accustomed to “Buddhist philosophy” though repeated usage, the idea of “miracles” in Buddhism is also beginning to become more familiar. Alongside the process of demythologizing, naturalizing, historicizing, and rationalizing Buddhism, which began early in the modern Western encounter with the religion and continues into the 21st century, a parallel concern has emerged to “re-mythologize” the tradition, as well as growing interest in aspects of the Buddhist tradition that have been neglected in modernist representations. Scholars and practicing Buddhists have begun to acknowledge and explore ways in which Buddhism as a religious tradition possesses richness, drawing upon and responding to many different dimensions of the human condition: human reason, but also our capacity for wonder, awe, and imagination; self-effort, but also faith and hope. The notion of Buddhist miracles may also still raise an eyebrow, because certain religious groups have traditionally claimed proprietary rights over the term “miracle.” This has also begun to change as the term has been extended across religious and cultural boundaries. Yet, scholarship in Buddhist studies has not been satisfied to rely upon easy equivalencies. Instead, it has begun to explore in more depth both the indigenous Buddhist terminology and the various contexts in which such terminology is found. By paying close attention to indigenous Buddhist conceptions of miracles, wonders, magic, superhuman powers, and the supernatural broadly considered, as well as the doctrinal, literary, material, and social contexts in which these notions appear, scholarship has begun to produce more nuanced understandings of the relationship in Buddhism between reason and wonder and between skepticism and imagination. In this way, scholarship can help to mitigate another cause of the persistent oddity of the expression: many people simply do not know the traditional Buddhist miracle stories, despite the fact that they are numerous and widespread throughout the tradition. Ultimately at stake is the way that Buddhists as well as scholars and non-Buddhists will choose to frame Buddhism as a religious tradition. In the face of the growing reach of scientific and secular rationality, it seems unlikely that Buddhists, or members of another religion for that matter, will embrace a naïve understanding of the nature of miracle as the framework by which they seek to establish their authority and that of their message. Still, greater familiarity with the miracle stories of Buddhism will increase awareness of the extent to which the tradition also grounded its authority by means of appeals to the miraculous, and may alter our basic understanding of Buddhism by allowing a greater role for the wondrous alongside the rational. Readers of this article will find additional references listed in the companion OBO article Abhijñā/Ṛddhi (Extraordinary Knowledge and Powers).
There is no scholarly monograph in any language devoted to the systematic, comprehensive analysis of miracles in Buddhism. Zin 2006, in German, is an excellent, thorough discussion of a selection of nine episodes, most of which qualify as miracle stories, organized around the theme of “tough discipline” (durdamana). Fiordalis 2008 is a preliminary attempt to analyze the indigenous Buddhist terminology for miracles, superhuman powers, and the like in a detailed way based upon indigenous Buddhist classifications. One of the obstacles standing in the way of a comprehensive survey of the topic is the cognitive dissonance that persists concerning the question of what qualifies as a miracle in Buddhism. Some have argued that since Buddhism appears to deny the omnipotence of any supernatural creator god, it entertains no concept of the miracle by definition. While not explicitly making this argument, Gombrich 1997 offers a vision of Buddhism in which miracles would seem to have little role to play and supernatural powers are relegated along with magic to the sphere of the secular, at least until the advent of Mahayana and Tantric Buddhism. Kalupahana 2002 can be read in a similar vein: while affirming that Buddhism denies the concept of the divine, the author nevertheless attempts to accommodate the miracle as an expression of the unique moral significance of the Buddha’s teaching. Granoff 1996, on the other hand, argues that the early Buddhists had no problem either conceptualizing or affirming miracles but also makes the somewhat speculative claim that Buddhist attitudes toward miracles differed according to the intended audience. Most discussions of miracles in Buddhism have focused attention only on those stories featuring the miraculous display of superhuman powers. Fiordalis 2010 and Gethin 2011 both go further, noting that a broader array of events comes under the purview of the traditional Buddhist terminology. These two articles cover somewhat similar ground to one another, though entirely independently, and are the most recent, succinct introductions to the topic. Gómez 2010 is probably the most significant current statement in the field, outlining a new approach to the topic drawing upon, among other things, recent cognitive theory and psychology of religion. The recent work of John Strong, such as Strong 2012 (cited under Miracles of the Buddha: Miracle at Sāṃkāśya), rivals that of Gómez both in erudition and command of relevant literature.
Fiordalis, David V. “Miracles and Superhuman Powers in South Asian Buddhist Literature.” PhD diss., University of Michigan, 2008.
Longest, most detailed treatment of the topic to date. Argues that Buddhism, while not univocal or free from internal tensions, conceives the miracle as the means by which the Buddha and his eminent disciples demonstrate their sacred authority and further their mission.
Fiordalis, David V. “Miracles in Indian Buddhist Narratives and Doctrine.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 33.1–2 (2010): 381–408.
Based on the author’s dissertation and part of a special section of the Journal edited by the author, entitled “Miracles and Superhuman Powers in South and Southeast Asian Buddhist Traditions,” this article analyzes the basic indigenous terminology and correlates the most common lists of events defined as miraculous by the tradition. Actually published in 2011.
Gethin, Rupert. “Tales of Miraculous Teachings: Miracles in Early Indian Buddhism.” In The Cambridge Companion to Miracles. Edited by Graham Twelftree, 217–234. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
Actually published before Fiordalis 2010 and Gómez 2010, and making no reference to Fiordalis 2008, this chapter, written by a leading contemporary scholar of Buddhism, covers much of the same ground as Fiordalis 2008, though more succinctly, and Fiordalis 2010, with slightly broader coverage and less detail, and independently reaches similar conclusions. Testifies to the importance of the topic.
Gombrich, Richard F. “The Buddha’s Attitude to Thaumaturgy.” In Bauddhavidyāsuddhākaraḥ: Studies in Honour of Heinz Bechert on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday. Edited by Petra Kieffer-Pülz and Jens-Uwe Hartmann, 165–184. Swisttal-Odendorf, Germany: Indicaet Tibetica Verlag, 1997.
Representative in certain respects of an earlier generation of scholarship for which the consensus was that the attitude of the Buddha and early Buddhism toward miracles, magic, and the like was simply and unambiguously critical. Nevertheless, this study affirms the position that the Buddha and his early disciples appear to have believed in the possibility of acquiring supernormal powers through “secular” means, and that they themselves possessed such powers.
Gómez, Luis O. “On Buddhist Wonders and Wonderworking.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 33.1–2 (2010): 513–554.
By the scholar most associated with the topic over the past few decades begins as a commentary on the other articles in the collection before making an original contribution to the topic of miracles and miracle stories in Buddhism and in religion more generally. Part of a special section of the Journal edited by David Fiordalis. Actually published in 2011.
Granoff, Phyllis. “The Ambiguity of Miracles: Buddhist Understandings of Supernatural Power.” East and West 46.1–2 (1996): 79–96.
Important though somewhat speculative essay arguing that the Buddhist attitude toward miracles differs depending on whether the intended audience is Buddhist or non-Buddhist. Texts of the former category characterized by an absence of doubt concerning the evidentiary value of miracles, whereas those of the latter portray miracles as more problematic.
Kalupahana, David J. “Miracles in Early Buddhism.” In Buddhist Studies in Honour of Professor Lily De Silva. Edited by P. D. Premasiri, 105–134. Peradeniya, Sri Lanka: Department of Pali and Buddhist Studies, University of Peradeniya, 2002.
Intriguing essay on the concept of the miracle in early Buddhism by a scholar of Buddhism who is best known for portraying early Buddhism as philosophy and the Buddha as an empirical pragmatist. Provides an interesting interpretation of the three types of Buddhist miracle that deemphasizes the role played by wonder and awe, and lays stress upon the unique moral significance of the teachings.
Zin, Monika. Mitleid und Wunderkraft: Schwierige Bekehrungen und ihre Ikonographie im Indischen Buddhismus. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2006.
Argues that the Buddha occasionally resorted to wonderworking out of compassion in order to bring about the conversion of certain beings particularly difficult to convert, such as Aṅgulimāla the serial killer, the three Kāśyapa brothers, the yakṣas Āṭavika and Hāritī, the nāga-king Apalāla, and so on. Nine chapters each describe a separate episode, drawing extensively upon both narrative and iconographical materials.
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- Abhijñā/Ṛddhi (Extraordinary Knowledge and Powers)
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