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The Buddhist Perspective on Magic and the Supernatural

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A. Magic Is Not the Ultimate

According to scriptures, even though two thousand years have passed, several of the Buddha’s disciples still live amongst us. Mahakyasyapa, one of the Buddha’s top disciples, is guarding the Buddha’s robe and in deep meditation inside Kukkutapada mountain.

He is waiting for the birth of Maitreya Buddha fifty-six trillion and seven hundred million years from now. He will present the robe, which represents the correct Dharma of the previous Buddha, to Maitreya Buddha for the continuous spread of the teachings. Decades ago, there was a story about a French explorer who actually met Mahakasyapa in India.

Venerable Pindolabharadvaja is another of Buddha’s disciples still living amongst us. He is one of the sixteen disciples named in The Amitabha Sutra. He has attained the holy fruit of Arhat.

Why would an arhat remain here and not enter Nirvana? It is because once he showed off his magic in front of the faithful. Once when in a jubilant mood, he said to the faithful,

"Do you think flying in the sky is magical? I will show you some spectacular acts."

He then jumped up into the sky and performed many miraculous acts.

The faithful were all impressed and praised him without ceasing. The Buddha was very displeased upon learning of this incident. He asked the Venerable to come forth and admonished him,

"My teaching uses morality to change others and compassion to save living beings. It does not use magic to impress and confuse people.

You have misused magic today. As punishment, I order you to stay in this world, to work for more merits and to repent for this misbehavior before entering Nirvana."

Because the Venerable misused magic, he still has to live and suffer amongst us. Magic cannot increase our virtue or eradicate defilements. Careless use will only build more obstacles to emancipation.

It is obvious that magic is not the solution for cycles of rebirth. Only practicing virtue is the sure and steady approach toward the Buddha Path.

B. Magic Cannot Mitigate the Force of Karma

The strongest force in this world is not magic. It is the force of deeds, or karma. In Chinese history, there once was an uprising and millions of people were slaughtered.

There was a saying, "Rebel Huang will kill eight million.

If you are in that number and it is your turn, you can never escape." The legend held that this rebel did kill eight million people before he was suppressed.

Regardless of whether this story is factual or mythical, we will talk about the phrase "your number and your turn." What does it mean? It means that none can escape karma.

Those citizens during that uprising shared common karma which had to be repaid with blood.

Magic cannot overcome the hindrance of karma. We must reap what we have sown. There is no escape.

Once, King Virudhaka of Kosala was attacking the Buddha’s motherland, Kapilavastu.

Maudgalyayana, foremost in magic among the Buddha’s disciples, volunteered to save the Sakya clan.

The Buddha replied sadly, "Maudgalyayana, this is the Sakya clan’s karma and they have not repented for it.

Today they will have to pay for their deeds. Although they are my family, even my magic cannot spare them."

Maudgalyayana did not believe the Buddha’s words. He flew into the city, which was completely surrounded by troops. He picked five hundred Sakya clansmen and magically put them in his almsbowl.

He flew out of the city and happily came before the Buddha. He said, "Lord Buddha. Look! I have saved a group of your clansmen."

However, looking into the bowl, he was shocked. The clansmen had turned into a pool of blood. Even Maudgalyayana himself, who was renowned for his magic, could not overcome the force of karma.

He could fly freely into the heaven and had ventured into hell to save his mother. Yet, he was eventually killed by a stone thrown by heretics.

How can a venerable with such great magic be so easily killed by a stone? Many of the Buddha’s disciples were perturbed and angry. The Buddha spoke to the disciples, "Magic cannot mitigate the force of karma.

It is Maudgalyayana’s karma to be killed by the stone thrown by heretics. You should not doubt the limit of magic. It is more important to diligently purify your action, speech, and thought."

There is a saying, "A boxer is killed by a fist. A swimmer drowns in water." Magic is not all powerful. One must not think that magic will make one fearless. The force of prior karma cannot be influenced by magic. If we only rely on magic, we can worsen our situation and may even lose our lives.

C. Magic Is Inferior to Virtues

Beginning students in Buddhism are most attracted to magic. When they learn about someone who has had a supernatural experience, they flock to see this person. They usually overlook the cultivation of virtue in daily living.

Wisdom is only developed through deep mental concentration from meditation, and meditation success relies on upholding precepts in daily living. If all of us here are serious students of Buddhism, we must start from the foundation of morality, not magic.

Do you really think magic will make your life happier? As long as we cannot read minds, even though people may hate us and curse us, we do not know it and everything is okay.

If we could read minds, then we would know that this person is totally immoral, that one is hateful, and the other one is full of devious ideas. We would feel uncomfortable among these people.

Even when we wished to be spared, we would still have the information anyway. Every day would be a long day. Suppose that we were about to die tomorrow but we did not know that, then today still would be a joyful day.

If we had the power of knowing the future and we found out that death awaited us in twenty years, from this day on we would live our lives anxiously under the shadow of death.

If we had celestial vision and found our loved ones having an affair, we would be consumed by jealousy and life would be miserable.

If we do not know, we may live happily as ever. If we had celestial hearing, we might find our most trusted friends reviling us behind our backs, and we would certainly be enraged. Without celestial hearing, we may enjoy more peace and quietness.

Magic would not necessarily make life better. Morality and virtue are the true inexhaustible treasures. Before we are accomplished in high virtue and morality, we should not have magical powers.

A life of virtue is superior to that of magic.

D. Magic Cannot Surpass Emptiness

Magic is in the realm of phenomena. The prajna wisdom of Buddhism is in the realm of emptiness which is everywhere, not bounded by anything. When there is experience in life, experience is magic.

When there is wisdom in life, wisdom is magic. When we have different capabilities in life, those capabilities are magic.

There is the truth of emptiness in life; the truth of emptiness is also magic. The wisdom of emptiness is very profound. It is not void or annihilation as most people commonly believe. Emptiness allows existence.

It is the source of all phenomena. For example, because of the empty space in this lecture hall, it can accommodate us and make this lecture series possible.

When our hearts are as broad as the universe, we too can have the capacity for everything. Emptiness is the most powerful force. Magic cannot compare with its boundlessness and inexhaustibility.

Once, the Ch’an master Venerable Tao Shu settled next to a Taoist temple.

The Taoist priests were very irate at his presence and used every kind of magic and tricks to scare him away.

Almost all the residents were frightened away. However, the Ch’an master remained unmoving as ever.

After twenty years, the Taoist priests gave up. People asked, "What magic did you use to beat those Taoist priests?"

The Ch’an master replied, "Oh, nothing. I used emptiness to beat them. Taoist priests have magic and tricks. ‘Having’ is being finite, being exhaustible, being bounded, being measurable.

I do not have any magic. ‘Not having’ means being infinite, being inexhaustible, being boundless, being immeasurable.

Therefore, emptiness (not having) can overcome magic (having) by being broader, greater, higher, superior."

Buddhism uses emptiness as existence. It is much more powerful than magic.

The wisdom of emptiness is much more advanced than magic. We will be much better off attaining the truth of emptiness than the power of magic.

The truth of emptiness will be far more essential and valuable.