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Ask A Buddhist: Buddha’s Miracles

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What do you want to ask a Buddhist? Fill out the form below or submit your question online.

By Ven. Tenzin Tsepal

What are some of the miracles the Buddha performed? How come these don’t make him a god?

Thanks for your question. Throughout the sutras—the recorded teachings of the Buddha—we see that, again and again, the Buddha discouraged displays of miracles. He once responded to a request for miracles by saying, “I dislike, reject and despise them.” One time the Buddha was staying near the city of Nalanda, and a man called Kevaddha visited him. After paying homage, Kevaddha suggested that since Nalanda was a successful city full of prosperous people who had confidence in the Buddha, it would be good if the Buddha appointed one of his monks to perform a marvel or miracle so that the people of Nalanda would become even more confident in the Buddha. The Buddha replied that this is not how he teaches the Dharma to his monks.

If he had the capacity to perform miracles, why would he not do so? People in his day had the same question, but as his response to Kevaddha illustrates, the Buddha was not interested in dazzling people with super powers. Rather than looking to be worshiped, the Buddha wished for people to recognize their own potential and to use his teachings to transform their minds.

Implicit Miracles

The Buddha’s first and most outstanding accomplishment was the fact that he purified his mind of every defilement such as anger, clinging attachment, and ignorance, and developed all positive qualities like compassion and wisdom to their utmost extent. This was his path to accomplish full and complete awakening. When we see day to day how habitually our minds are controlled by various destructive emotions, and how difficult it is to gain even a little control over the thoughts and emotions that motivate our actions, we can begin to appreciate just how amazing this accomplishment is.

This is the most important outcome of practicing the Buddha’s teaching—overcoming the cycle of unsatisfactory rebirth, attaining lasting peace and leading others to do the same.

The Buddha also gave instruction on temporary spiritual accomplishments, which arise from developing meditative concentration. Supernormal powers arise through the force of an extremely concentrated mind, allowing one to gain mastery over nature, which defies scientific laws. For example, such a person can fly through the air, read the minds of others, and hear sounds in faraway places. Even present-day yogis—meditators of great accomplishment—are said to have these gifts.

The Buddha advised his monks never to show off their powers just to impress ignorant people, and that doing so is a source of shame and humiliation because it doesn’t put an end to suffering or lead others to liberation or enlightenment. If practitioners use such powers to gain praise, fame or wealth, these superknowledges are really no different than a magician’s performance, and can bring great harm to others.

The Buddha was more interested in another kind of “miracle.” He said, “When you see a person full of clinging attachment, craving and greed and you teach her to free herself from clinging attachment, craving and greed; when you see a person enslaved to hatred and anger and you use your powers to help him control his hatred and anger; when you come across people who are ignorant and who cannot see the true nature of the world, and you use your powers to help them overcome their ignorance, these are worthy ‘miracles’ you can perform.”

Explicit Miracles

With the specific intent to help beings alleviate their suffering, the Buddha did perform explicit miracles from time to time. One famous display occurred at a time when the Buddha was challenged by six teachers of non-Buddhist views. The Buddha replied, “The time will be known. Prepare a suitable place.” People eagerly awaited the sight of the Buddha and the six teachers performing miracles, and were quite surprised when the Buddha left Rajagriha for the neighboring city of Vaisali. He was followed by a great multitude from the city of Rajagriha.

Thinking that he was running away, the teachers challenged the Buddha again in Vaisali, to which he replied, “All in good time. Prepare a place.” But again, he left for Kausambi before the event took place, followed by an even larger retinue. He continued in this manner until he had visited all the neighboring kingdoms. Finally, it was in Sravasti that he determined the time had arrived to benefit present-day citizens as well as future Buddhist disciples by displaying miracles. The kings of all these neighboring lands along with thousands of their attendants accompanied him to Sravasti. King Prasenjit of Sravasti said to the Buddha, “Those six teachers want to challenge you. Please show your miraculous powers and subdue them!” The Buddha replied, “The time is known. Prepare a suitable place.” The king had a large field prepared, burning incense and placing a lion throne and banners of the Buddha.

On the first day, the Buddha went to the field that had been prepared, and took his place on the lion throne before the great crowd. After King Prasanjit made great offerings to him, the Buddha placed a toothpick in the ground, and it grew into a magnificent tree whose branches extended for kilometers. It had beautiful leaves, flowers, fruit and jewels of every kind. Multicolored lights radiated from the jewels and when the wind rustled the leaves, the sound of the Buddha’s teaching were heard.

Day after day he exhibited even more amazing feats. The six challengers were humbled and became followers of Buddha’s way. It is said that many thousands who witnessed the miracles progressed spiritually, and some even attained liberation on the spot. Although they are not specifically highlighted, there are many such examples of the Buddha’s miracles recorded in the Buddhist sutras and scriptures.

About Ven. Tenzin Tsepal

Venerable Tenzin Tsepal met Venerable Thubten Chodron, founder of Sravasti Abbey, in Seattle and studied Buddhism with her from 1995 to 1999. During that time, Venerable Tsepal attended the Life as a Western Buddhist Nun conference in Bodhgaya, India in 1996 as a lay supporter. An interest in ordination surfaced after she completed a three-month meditation retreat in 1998. She lived in India for two years while continuing to explore monastic life. In 2001, she received sramanerika (novice) ordination from His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

While Venerable Tsepal was in India, some Australians friends introduced her to the 5 year Buddhist Studies Program at Chenrezig Institute (CI) north of Brisbane, Queensland, where she subsequently lived and engaged in intensive residential study from 2002-2015. As the Western Teacher at CI, she tutored weekend teachings and retreats, and taught the Discovering Buddhism courses.

Prior to ordaining, Venerable Tsepal completed a degree in Dental Hygiene, and then pursued graduate school in hospital administration at the University of Washington. Not finding happiness in 60 hour work weeks, she was self-employed for 10 years as a Reiki teacher and practitioner.

Now a member of the resident community at Sravasti Abbey, Venerable Tsepal is compiling and editing the many years of Venerable Chodron’s teachings on monastic training as well as leading a review on the Buddhist philosophical tenets for the residents.

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