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Miracle

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A miracle (pāṭihāriya) is an act or occurrence contravening the known laws of nature and which is believed to have a divine cause. The most commonly reported miracles include sudden non-medical healings, the appearances of deities, messages from deities, etc. While the Buddha accepted the possibility of miracles, he had a rather sceptical attitude towards most of the supposed miracles reported to him. Once, somebody asked him to perform a miracle so that ‘even more people will have faith in you.’ The Buddha replied that there were miracles which thoughtful or sceptical people would have doubts about. There was, however, a miracle that all could have confidence in, what he called ‘the miracle of instruction’ (anusāsāni pāṭihāriya). This miracle consisted, he said, of teaching morality, acceptance, peace of mind and meditation (D.I,214). The Buddha summed up his attitude to miracles when he said: ‘Whether miracles are performed or not, my purpose in teaching the Dhamma is to lead whoever practises it to the complete freedom of suffering. Then what is the point of performing miracles?’ (D.III,4).

Some religions claim that their founder could perform miracles and that this is proof of his or her unique divinity. But there are some problems with this position. Firstly, it requires denying the reality of the miracles claimed by other religions. As the miracles done by one religious founder are often just as well attested and often the same as or similar to those supposedly done by another, the claim that one founder was divine and the others were not, is unconvincing. Secondly, the history of religion offers many examples in which individuals with miraculous powers later turned out to be only too human. This being the case, the link between miraculous abilities and divinity is a tenuous one. Buddhism has always pointed out that Devadatta, the Buddha’s ambitious and scheming cousin, developed his psychic powers to a very high degree. From the Buddhist perspective, being able to perform a miracle is no proof of moral or spiritual perfection. And lastly, unusual occurrences, if genuine, are much more likely to be due to an individual’s psychic abilities than they are to divine power. This, at least, is the Buddhist position.

The Buddha and some of his disciples were sometimes attributed with miraculous powers (e.g. D.II,89; III,38). Some people believe the stories about the Buddha’s miracles to be literally true, while others see them as having an allegorical meaning or even being a later addition to the scriptures. Either way, attaining enlightenment does not depend on believing in a miracle and none of the central doctrines of Buddhism are of a supernatural or miraculous nature. See Ganges, Pseudocyesis and Saṅkassa.

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