The Buddha’s Manifesto on Miracles and Revelation

| October 22, 2012 | 23 Comments

The Kevaddha Sutta(Dīgha Nikāya 11) opens with Kevaddha, a householder, who tells the Buddha that there are many potential converts to the Buddha dhamma living nearby in Nāḷandā. He suggests that the Buddha get one of his monks to use miracles to excite and amaze them. This would, he says, be sure to gain many new adherents.

But the Buddha does not assent:

Kevaddha, this is not the way I teach Dhamma to the monks, by saying: “Go, monks, and perform superhuman feats and miracles for the white-clothed laypeople!” (1)

Pressed by Kevaddha, the Buddha clarifies himself. He says he recognizes just three forms of miracle: certain psychic powers, telepathic mind reading, and instruction in the dhamma. However, he is only willing to countenance the “miracle of instruction” in the dhamma when it comes to attracting new adherents.

Against Miracles

The Buddha gives an argument as to why he does not accept using the two real kinds of miracle, psychic powers and telepathy. While he recognizes them as real, he also recognizes that they will not convince the skeptic. The Buddha says that there are certain charms (the Gandhāra and Maṇika charms, in particular) that are reputed to give one miraculous powers, and so any skeptic who sees such powers will attribute them to the work of a charm rather than to the abilities of the person performing the miracle. If so, of course, the skeptic will not be convinced that the miracle worker is one with true wisdom.

For this reason, the Buddha says, using psychic powers and telepathy are not good ways to bring new adherents. “And that is why, Kevaddha, seeing the danger of such miracles, I dislike, reject and despise them.” (5)

Now, there are several things one can say about the Buddha’s argument. The translator, Maurice Walshe, claims that the skeptic’s position is weak: he or she “does not have a really convincing way of explaining things away. Modern parallels suggest themselves.” (p. 557n.235). In other words, there is little reason to accept the existence of the Gandhāra and Maṇika charms, and so the Buddha’s skeptic would only be dismissing these miracles in an ad hoc fashion. Walshe apparently believes modern skeptics follow the same pattern.

But I don’t think this is an adequate interpretation of the passage. For one, Kevaddha also appears familiar with the existence of the Gandhāra and Maṇika charms, and there is no independent reason for supposing either he or the Buddha believed them ineffective. If so, then the skeptic’s argument would have been convincing at the time, if not to a modern ear.

But to go deeper, why should the Buddha care if some skeptic might misconstrue the source of this miraculous power? Surely many in a large audience would be convinced by such marvels as becoming invisible, walking on water, or flying through the air, to take three of the abilities that fall under the Buddha’s conception of “psychic power”. Surely many would accept the Buddha as a powerful, knowledgeable teacher, even if some skeptics were left to one side. So it is perhaps more accurate to say that the Buddha doesn’t have a convincing way of explaining why he should not use miraculous powers, if they are available to him. Or at least he doesn’t present a very convincing argument in the sutta.

So what is really going on here? Two possible explanations come to mind. The first is what the Buddha may have wanted to get across to Kevaddha, the second is a bit subtler.

Perhaps the Buddha is really saying that these miracles don’t bring people to the dhamma for the right reasons. They are mere circus show; the sorts of things that stun and delight the crowd but don’t really instruct. Thus their contrast with the so-called “miracle of instruction”. In effect, the miracles are but sense delights; the sorts of things that lead to attachment and craving. The real miracle is not supernatural at all. It is the ‘miracle’ of the dhamma: of teaching true wisdom.

The second explanation is that the Buddha may have known that his miraculous powers were largely or wholly internal and subjective: thoughts and images in states of deep meditation, instead of actual invisibility; subtle demonstrations open to interpretation, unlikely to sway the unconvinced. If so, it’s not only a few crafty skeptics who would have been unmoved, since powers such as becoming invisible, walking on water, or flying through the air would not have been publicly available, or at least not in a way likely to dazzle the householders. And it is all too easy for a smart cross-examiner, such as those “hair-splitting marksmen” mentioned in the Cūḷahatthipadopama Sutta, to unmask apparent examples of telepathy.

The dhamma, on the other hand, is publicly explicable, hard to find fault with, and more likely to convince.

If this is the correct reading, then the Buddha was right to abjure miraculous folderol and stick to true instruction.

Brahmā Behind the Curtain

The second part of the Kevaddha Sutta contains one of the great satires of the ancient world. Here the Buddha speaks about “a certain monk” of his order who wanted to know “where the four great elements … cease without remainder.” He had meditative capacities that gave him access to the devas, so rather than investigate the dhamma for himself, he decided just to ask them to give him the right answer.

This monk went from deva to deva, asking each his question, however each one pleaded ignorance and passed him to the next, until the monk arrived at the Great Brahmā himself, claimed Creator of the Universe. But instead of answering his question, Brahmā replied with a grand oration, apparently intended to cow the monk into silence:

Monk, I am Brahmā, Great Brahmā, the Conqueror, the Unconquered, the All-Seeing, All-Powerful, the Lord, the Maker and Creator, the Ruler, Appointer and Orderer, Father of All That Have Been and Shall Be. (81)

But the monk wasn’t intimidated. He asked Brahmā again, and again Brahmā responded with the list of his great and fearsome qualities. Once again the monk said, “Friend, I did not ask you that”. The Buddha continues,

Then, Kevaddha, the Great Brahmā took that monk by the arm, led him aside and said: “Monk, these devas believe there is nothing Brahmā does not see, there is nothing he does not know, there is nothing he is unaware of. That is why I did not speak in front of them. But, monk, I don’t know where the four great elements cease without remainder. … Now, monk, you just go to the Blessed Lord and put this question to him, and whatever answer he gives, accept it.” (83)

As the Great Oz would say, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” This is Buddhist humanism at its best: Brahmā, self-styled Creator of the Universe, is revealed to be an ignorant blowhard, vainly hiding his incompetence by pulling the poor monk offstage before confiding in him the sad truth.

It’s all too easy to say that this story serves the Buddha well: it’s a satire of the greatest of gods bowing down to his wisdom. And of course, it is at least that. But it is more besides.

For it is also a rejection of revealed knowledge: the notion that in order to become wise, all one need do is to ask the right divinity and have the answer provided, packaged up in a revelation.

Buddhist Skeptical Humanism? 

At first glance it might look as though there is little in common between the two parts of this sutta. First we have Kevaddha asking the Buddha to use miracles to attract the people of Nāḷandā, and second we have a monk asking Brahmā how to attain nibbāna.

But in fact both parts illustrate the same basic point. The parable of Brahmā, like Kevaddha’s insistence on using miracles to convince, is about the pitfalls of trying to find answers through miraculous means. Both reject using the supernatural to make an end-run around the understanding of reality for oneself, the hard way.

Both also provide implicit warnings against any who would claim to ground their practice on the supernatural.

The world has witnessed many religious and spiritual leaders over the centuries. It’s unusual to find any who would eschew displays of supposed miracles or supernormal abilities in order to gain new followers. And yet it’s clear from the Kevaddha Sutta that the Buddha preferred to edify rather than astound.

Or not?

Finally, a word about the translations: the one available on the web from Thanissaro Bhikkhu includes many paragraphs (indeed, an entire middle section) that are apparently not original to the Kevaddha Sutta. They are passages identical to those from the Brahmajāla Sutta (DN 1), and the Sāmaññaphala Sutta (DN 2). It is only by leaving those passages to one side that we can see what is original and particular to the Kevaddha itself; and it is only then that we see the point the Buddha may be trying to make. Maurice Walshe’s translation for Wisdom excises all that is not original, which clarifies things considerably.

That said, copied passages under “the miracle of instruction” include such things as clairaudience, clairvoyance, mind reading, becoming invisible, walking on water, flying through the air, indeed all the various miracles which the Buddha says he “dislike[s], reject[s], and despise[s]“. So if we take the complete sutta literally, it would seem that the Buddha rejects these miracles under their own guise, but accepts them under the guise of “the miracle of instruction”. And that seems a contradiction.

Perhaps the compilers inserted the passages from the Sāmaññaphala Sutta in order to explicate the entirety of the Buddhist path, without realizing that doing so would introduce such a contradiction in the sutta. Or perhaps more likely they believed that the Buddha’s supernormal abilities were not to be presented to laypeople as introductory instruction, but rather as the sort of thing that would only come up as a matter of course to those fully involved in monasticism, where they would play no part in recruitment. In the latter case, neither would the monastics be in the position of the ”hair-splitting marksmen” mentioned above.

Understanding the sutta in its fullness deprives it of a measure of skeptical and rational force, at least for a modern audience: the Buddha clearly did not reject the miraculous outright. He only did so as an aid to winning over householders, which is no small thing. However this understanding also provides a caution against misreading the Buddha. For while his message was humanist, rationalist and empirical, it was also one that accepted the supernatural categories of his time and culture.

Noting this, of course, need not deprive us of celebrating skepticism and humanism where we find it in the Buddha’s message.

————

*  Also spelled “Kevatta”. I am using the Walshe translation.

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Doug Smith

About the Author ()

Doug has a PhD in Philosophy, with a minor in Buddhist philosophy and Sanskrit. He practiced Zen meditation for many years, and is now practicing in the Theravāda tradition. As a long time scientific skeptic, he pursues a naturalized approach to practice. He is also interested in scholarship about the Tripiṭaka, and the theoretical and historical origins of the dhamma.

Comments (23)

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  1. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Doug, thanks for this post! I have also used this sutta as an example of contradictions created by the editorial emendation of what must have been earlier versions of the texts. I think there might have been two things going on in this editorial process. First, it seems clear to me that many of the suttas have these pericope passages added in at points where the editor may have thought they were appropriate; so a mention of the jhanas, for instance, will occasion the insertion of the whole jhana pericope. Here, a mention of psychic powers may have led the compiler to think that the “powers of the arahant” pericope was called for. Secondly, I note that there is a defensive effect of this insertion. Though Gotama is announcing his detestation of miracle displays, the pericope reassures listeners that his denunciation doesn’t mean that arahants DON’T have miraculous powers. Given the emphasis on public miracles in many suttas (Gotama fighting with nagas, flying through the air, teleporting from place to place, etc) it seems clear that someone felt it important to emphasized Gotama’s miraculous status (perhaps sensitive to competition with other sects whose leaders claimed such powers). All of this is evidence of the editing of whatever sutta material may have originated with the historical Gotama’s teaching and activities, if not the active composition of original suttas that may not have originated with Gotama.

  2. Linda Linda says:

    Great post!

    I’m sure Mark will remember that I disagreed with his take on the portion of the sutta you, Doug, are suggesting might be either an insertion or the Buddha using “his miracles” to win adherents. Between you two that’s three theories, and I’ll bring a fourth, which is to note that in each of the descriptions of powers like flying through the air or diving into the earth, the section begins with the practitioner going into a deep meditative state. To me it is clear that the Buddha is suggesting what any good meditator knows: you can do anything when your mind is tuned to it. I hear the Buddha saying he rejects gross miracles, and that if anyone perceives they do miracles, they have done it in those extraordinary states — and heck, he can do that, so can his disciples.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Hi Linda, and thanks! I think I was trying to get at something like your claim when I said the miracles might have been “thoughts and images in states of deep meditation”. If so, of course, there needn’t be anything supernatural about them, and nothing very persuasive to the householders of Nāḷandā.

      • mufi says:

        Doug: …the miracles might have been “thoughts and images in states of deep meditation”. If so, of course, there needn’t be anything supernatural about them…

        OK, but what reason(s) do we have to believe that Gautama (or the sutta author) drew the same interpretive distinctions that we (as 21st-Century Western naturalists/scientific-skeptics) draw between “thoughts and images” and perceptions of real events taking place outside of one’s imagination?

        Granted, my question is partly inspired by personal experience of contemporary Buddhists, who claim that consciousness is fundamental to reality or that all events are essentially mental (in a sort of Eastern version of idealism, I suppose). But then who am I (especially as a relative newcomer to Buddhism) to say that their interpretation of Gautama is incorrect?

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          OK, but what reason(s) do we have to believe that Gautama (or the sutta author) drew the same interpretive distinctions that we (as 21st-Century Western naturalists/scientific-skeptics) draw between “thoughts and images” and perceptions of real events taking place outside of one’s imagination?

          Well, conventionally speaking everyone in his day understood the distinction between dream and reality. The problem comes up with supposed ‘supramundane’ mental states, such as those in deep meditation. And then all the evidence is that the Buddha took those as revelatory of the way the world really worked. E.g., that not only did these reveal the truth of anatta, anicca, and dukkha, but also that he had an unbounded number of past lives, that karma was effective, and presumably that people could fly, disappear, etc.

          All of these claims have interpretations though. He might, for example, have understood “flying” as some sort of out-of-body experience which, while to him literally true (he might have literally believed he was flying), would not have included his body. Or he might have had some latent concern about whether this miracle was really visible to others.

          When it comes to these sorts of subtle issues, it’s not clear how we can properly interpret, since there are so many possibilities.

          • mufi says:

            Doug: Well, conventionally speaking everyone in his day understood the distinction between dream and reality. The problem comes up with supposed ‘supramundane’ mental states, such as those in deep meditation.

            I’ve known people (non-Buddhists) who somehow distinguished between their experiences during dream states vs. wakeful states (or for that matter, vs. “tripping” on hallucinogenic drugs) – e.g. based on such criteria as the frequency and quality of the events and the conditions that obtain before and after – yet they nonetheless asserted that all of these experiences perceive reality in some way – perhaps of different planes.

            It sounds to me like the Buddha (and his contemporaries & followers) believed something like this with respect to “‘supramundane’ mental states, such as those in deep meditation.”

            Would you agree?

          • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

            mufi: Would you agree?

            Absolutely. Thus all the stuff about … different planes of existence in the suttas. Surely it comes from somewhere.

            My sense is that the Buddha was empirical to a fault: if he experienced it, it was true. (At least, in states of consciousness he considered concentrated, purified, etc.)

          • mufi says:

            Doug: My sense is that the Buddha was empirical to a fault: if he experienced it, it was true. (At least, in states of consciousness he considered concentrated, purified, etc.)

            Glad that my sense matches yours!

            That said, I can now hear an orthodox/traditionalist critic in my head, charging something along the lines of: How can you call yourself a Buddhist and yet fault the Buddha with such a basic error of reason?!

            It’s a charge that I take seriously, and my stock response to it (aside from generally refraining from self-identifying as a “Buddhist”) goes something along the lines of: Newton was interested in alchemy and the occult. Should I therefore reject his role in founding classical mechanics?

            Of course, the analogy to Newton soon breaks down – the point being that we can balance a critical relationship with the Buddhist tradition with an appreciative (if not loving) one, as your essay series here demonstrates.

      • Linda Linda says:

        Ah, I see, yes you did suggest that. Thanks for pointing it out.

        (Oh and btw, are you the same Doug who asked for some context for translations of sankhara back on my #2 post on Dependent Arising? If you are, just thought I’d point out that I wrote a blogpost for you, and I mentioned it on that thread. http://secularbuddhism.org/2012/05/23/a-secular-understanding-of-dependent-origination-2-sankhara/#comment-2309 )

  3. Mark Knickelbine says:

    . . . and Linda knows my take that saying these miracles are things that happen “in deep meditation” makes very little sense. First off, it would be inconsistent with the descriptions of what is supposed to be going on in the higher jhanas, which is an increasing remove from subjective perception. Secondly, I can fantacise about jumping through walls without having to achieve meditative absorption. Finally, why? What would be the possible point of such mental activity? Why not take the passage at face value — the mental concentration of the arahant makes it possible for him to do miraculous things (perhaps as some kind of astral projection or something)?

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Well, far as I can tell, in the Sāmaññaphala Sutta it’s pretty clear that these powers (somehow) come through the fourth jhana. Cf. para. 87: “And he, with mind concentrated, purified and cleansed, unblemished, free from impurities, malleable, workable, established, and having gained imperturbability applies and directs his mind to the various supernormal powers.”

      This stock phrase is typical of the attainment of the fourth jhana, C.f. the Cūḷahatthipadopama Sutta paras. 22-23.

      In these cases the meditator enters the jhana and then leaves it in order to do various things like investigate past lives, undertake supernormal powers, etc. So they aren’t strictly done within the jhana, but the power to do them comes (somehow) from the jhana,

    • Linda Linda says:

      Mark, when you fantasize about these things, does it feel so convincing that you are certain your average Jordan (someone not well versed in critical thinking) would mistake the fantasy for reality? I think the definition of the act of fantasizing is that we are aware (during or immediately afterward) that we are fantasizing, and it doesn’t get mistaken for reality.

      *The Buddha’s* jhanas are about an increasing remove from subjective perception — about seeing reality more clearly. Was that what was going on with the folks he was talking to? Maybe they thought it was what they were doing, but to the Buddhist point of view, is it what other schools were doing with meditation? Were they perceived by the Buddha to be removing themselves from subjective perception? Or were they being indoctrinated to see their experiences in equivalent levels of concentration as “reality”?

      Are you asking “What would be the point of the Buddha training his folks to do such mental activities”? or “What would be the point of other schools of thought” doing it? Obviously, the latter would run the same way things go now: (1) honest gurus who have convinced themselves the tricks they do in their minds are real gain followers when they train others to experience and believe the same things (2) charlatans who have learned the feat gain followers by passing the same “feats” that those in #1 above do, only — like modern fakirs — they aren’t honest about what’s going on, though they are aware they are deceiving their followers. The point, then, is either to lead others to the same bliss the guru found, or to gain advantage by deceiving people.

      As for the former, does the Buddha say his people *should* do these things? Does he ever point out those who can? Do we find his adherents in the suttas saying that’s what they do? (I know of at least one famous sutta in which various disciples are asked if they gained awakening through these sorts of miracles, and none of them claim it.) The Buddha says they can do them, but I don’t see him teaching his monks *how* to do them. Is there an equivalent I’m unaware of to the Satipatthana Sutta that teaches how to achieve these states and tells us why we should? I doubt that there is.

  4. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Doug, I was referring to the formless jhanas, but you are of course right about the fourth jhana, which also confers the Three Knowledges. Wynne has a very interesting article which suggests that the full 8-jhana scheme is probably a post-Gotama concoction designed to facilitate meditation forms that originated with Upanishadic contemplative practices based on Vedic cosmology. My larger point is that if, as Gotama attests, performing miracles is not what his teaching is about, then how did the miracle pericope come to exist? The simplest answer that also adequately explains the facts is that this is a result of an editorial process that resulted in contradictory doctrines being encorporated in the Pali nikayas.

  5. Linda Linda says:

    I think what’s missing from our understanding of why the Buddha says and does the things he says and does is (as always) context — particularly understanding of the way gurus spoke in those days. They spoke in riddles. Read the Upanisads and you’ll see what a tangle gets generated by the way they talk. Historically, the point was to make the student work hard to understand the deeper meaning of statements that were self-contradictory, or so obvious as to seem hardly worth mentioning, or whatever guru-speak mode they adopted. “There is the truth of suffering.” Well, yeah we know it’s true that there is suffering, so what? You have to study long and hard to understand just how much meaning is packed into that phrase. Among the Buddha’s last words: “All compounded things are subject to vanish.” True, so what? “If there were no birth, there would be no aging and death.” Well, duh!

    On so many things the Buddha talks about, we already know and accept that he’s saying something much deeper than the obvious surface statement he’s making, but I think we fail to recognize the degree to which he does this even in larger contexts rather than in just pat phrases. It’s there in just about everything.

    In DN 11, the first of the post-fourth-jhana miracles starts with pulling a mind-made body out in front — it’s *mind*-made, remember. Next he can split himself in two and walk on water and do all the things dismissed earlier in the section on “psychic powers”. But rather than describing it as being the miracle of teleportation, he says, “This, too, is the miracle of instruction.” Why do you think he has reclassified it here? In fact he reclassifies *all* variants of the two other “miracles” as “miracles of instruction”.

    Then he can hear distant sounds, and so on — everything that follows is not described as a “miracle of as in the first portion, but as a miracle of instruction”. I think he’s talking about indoctrination. It’s just quite clear to me *in the sutta* that he says these are things one can do “with instruction” if one is a really good meditator. But he’s clearly not endorsing it, and, really, he is contrasting it to what the sutta opens with; the opening descriptions of what the competition can do *do not* start with meditative states nor are they called “miracles of instruction”; his later descriptions of his style do — there’s the contrast: he is stating that these are “Buddhist miracles”, they are meditative states that can be learned. (He is probably also implying that the competitions’ miracles are also all in their minds — see discussion of AN 3.60 below.)

    But to really understand what he’s saying we have to look at an even bigger picture than sutta — we have to look at the whole body of work. Does he ever talk about these being liberative? Does he ever give instructions to someone who is stuck in their practice as a key to unlock things (as he does with, for example, emptiness?). Why is it he is talking about this to some householder who introduces the topic in the context of advertising (i.e. bringing in new followers)?

    What I see (and it’s not pretty) is that the Buddha told stories, made statements in agreement with others’ philosophies; stated the obvious, and so on. He recognized that there were people would would take those statements at face value and take what they could from his teachings with just the simple level of “Practice Right Speech” speeches, and they’d benefit from those because they were suited to their level of understanding. But there were also people who understood what guru-speak was about, and would look deeper, and come to understand what he really meant when he talked about miracles, or repeated rounds, or the dukkha inherent in birth-aging-and-death.

    Like most other Buddhists who admire the fellow who started it all, I want him to be a Good Man in modern terms, in the way I’d want to see a Good Man behave nowadays. I want him to just be a plain speaker, and not leave the poor literalists confused — or confuse later generations right up to our times. But he lived in different times from ours, and he was doing whatever it took to get his dharma to stick and get transmitted through time, and that is no easy task.

    It is clear, from the times when he bemoaned the lack of students who really understood what he was saying, that he recognized that he wasn’t going to be able to get the deeper concepts through to the vast majority. If this discussion with Kevatta left some with the impression that his monks could do the same miracles everyone else could, then at least those who failed to spot the deeper discussion would continue to feed his disciples — just because they felt he was awesome in his ability to do miracles — and they’d take basic instruction which might help them. This is what I call “the front door” — he draws people in with great rhetoric. Get them through the door, and see if they can see the deeper point as they learn to meditate themselves, and are shown the direction to look to see what’s going on. And the amazing thing to me is that he’s telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth the whole time — but the structure of his stories requires a great deal of scrutiny to see how precisely it’s all put together. Without that keen attention the story is much simpler to the ear of the common man. We only see the deep truth with deep study.

    The other thing to consider is translation and transmission. Our English translators are literalists and they translate with that assumption. This makes it much harder for us, as commoners, to see the structure that maybe tradition doesn’t think is there. Also, the sermon originally may have had bits in it that made it clearer what he was doing, but they would have been dropped by later editors as “obviously added later” or corruptions*. I don’t seriously think this sutta will have had a dropout — I think it’s clear enough as it stands — but it could possibly have had.

    And finally, returning to the “larger context” we should look at other suttas in which the Buddha talks about the same subjects. AN 3.60 is the one I am most familiar with. If you go here:

    http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.060.than.html#fnt-1

    you might note that Ananda asks a question that Sangarava finds disturbing, and the Buddha then ‘reads Sangarava’s mind’ and does the polite thing and turns the conversation by asking him what went on in the raja’s court that day — a question that assumes the Brahmin had been in court.

    Note that the subject of the rest of the sutta — the same three types of miracles discussed in DN 11 — is now brought up with the observation that there used to be few monastics but lots of them could do miracles, and now there are many, and few can. (Since Gotama has just claimed that he has increased the converts, we might safely assume that his monastics are among those who don’t.)

    The Buddha then instructs Sangarava on the various types of miracles, with the first power (of teleportation) described in one brief paragraph, the second (mind reading) is described at great length (we’ll return to it), and the last (teaching) is very very brief.

    The structure of the “teleportation” section starts with the grossest examples: (1) using “some clue” (2) “hears voices” of deities etc (3) hears the thoughts directly and finally (4) “encompasses the mind” of the other with his own mind, concluding “This person’s mental activities are so disposed that immediately afterward he will think this thought”.

    When asked which of the three powers Sangarava favors, he is a clear supporter of the power of teaching, and the Buddha does not disagree (which is consistent with DN 11). Further, Sangarava points out the problem with the first two is that “only the one who performs this wonder experiences it and it occurs only to him” (doesn’t this tell us that the miracles in DN 11 were in the mind?). He has the same objection to mind-reading.

    Really he prefers instruction as the best power.

    And after the Buddha has explained all his miracles, Sangarava concludes that the Buddha has all three powers. This comment is followed by a cryptic remark by the Buddha that none of our translators (or the commentaries) can quite sort out (I have made no attempt to translate it, myself, but I suspect it was a mock-shock sort of statement, since both seem to have agreed that the first two miracles were inferior, to then have it suggested that the Buddha was doing them could be insulting).

    I point out Sangarava’s conclusion because the story has shown us the reason he says the Buddha has all three powers: the Buddha knew Sangarava had been at court as if he had seen him there himself (it matters not one whit that the Buddha might well have known this from other clues — that Sangarava did it every day perhaps; or someone else who passed by mentioned it, for example — in fact I think that’s part of the point, that he had other ways to tell; that’s where the humor comes from); he read Sangarava’s mind in his discomfort with Ananda’s question (again: we can all see how he performed that ‘magic trick’) and, of course, as always, the whole conversation was a miracle of instruction.

    • David Chou David Chou says:

      Kinda reminds me of what my old Abrahamist preachers said, that the Bible was intentionally full of contradictions, only the point was to dissuade the secularly wise as understanding comes only with acceptance of God’s grace.

      I really like your interpretation, Linda, but it just so reminds me of the dodge Christians use. Then again, I also like Mark’s idea, too, that it was just the inevitable corruption of the ages.

  6. Linda Linda says:

    gack. damned html brackets.

    4th paragraph to read:

    Then he can hear distant sounds, and so on — everything that follows is *not* described as a “miracle of (whatever power)” as in the first portion, but as a “miracle of instruction”. I think he’s talking about indoctrination. It’s just quite clear to me *in the sutta* that he says these are things one can do “with instruction” if one is a really good meditator. But he’s clearly not endorsing it, and, really, he is contrasting it to what the sutta opens with; the opening descriptions of what the competition can do *do not* start with meditative states nor are they called “miracles of instruction”; his later descriptions of his style do — there’s the contrast: he is stating that these are “Buddhist miracles”, they are meditative states that can be learned. (He is probably also implying that the competitions’ miracles are also all in their minds — see discussion of AN 3.60 below.)

  7. Jett Hanna says:

    Great article. Encore!

    A question-is there any organized effort to create a compilation of Pali Canon along the lines of the Jesus seminar or Stephen Mitchell’s Gospel according to Jesus? A cut and paste of “authentic” Gotama sayings and stories? The task looks daunting in comparison. I’m just beginning to digest this website but the possibilities look promising.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Hi Jett,

      Thanks very much, glad you liked the article.

      Not that I know of, though I am sure various individuals have their own preferred list. Things to remember: first, the Jesus Seminar was controversial within religious studies itself. Second, the number of Pali scholars is very small compared to the number of scholars working on early Christianity. Third, difficulties about figuring out authenticity are significantly greater with Pali material than early Christian, given the amount of time between when the events were said to have occurred and when they were said to have been written down. IIRC some scholars don’t even believe we can distinguish a historical or authentic Gotama above and beyond the texts. Fourth, and to me most important among laypeople and lay scholars, one has to be very careful to distinguish what we’d have liked Gotama to have said from what Gotama might really have said. Confirmation bias being what it is, it’s all too easy just to pick out the nicer quotes and dismiss the rest because we don’t like it. Personally, I would prefer to stay away from cutting and pasting, at least as regards scholarship about the “authentic Gotama”. Sure, there may be some suttas that seem later for one reason or another, or that seem out-of-place, but if that’s anything other than a minority, and with very good reasons, I think we end up doing editorial work rather than scholarship. For contemporary practice, editorial work is essential. For scholarship, it is to be avoided.

      • Jett Hanna says:

        Thanks, Doug-I agree with your analysis, which is why I said the task is daunting, particularly if the goal is scholarship rather than editorial. That is why I also mentioned Mitchell’s Gospel. Bachelor’s Confession certainly outlines a more coherent story which might approach history, perhaps he is working on a biography of sorts fleshing it out.

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          Yes, though Batchelor’s interest is legitimately somewhere in between scholarship and editorial. He isn’t really a Buddhist scholar in the standard sense of the word. He’s someone intimately involved in contemporary practice.

          One other thing I forgot to mention is that a scholar concerned with early Buddhism has to know Gāndhārī and Chinese well enough to compare the Āgamas to the Pali Canon. I believe there is some question as to whether some of that material may be older than the Pali, though I am not sure. (It’s something I’d like to look into). AFAIK very few people are able to really do this work well. (One also must be conversant with secondary source material in the target languages as well, particularly Chinese and Japanese, but I am sure Tibetan wouldn’t hurt).

          • Jett Hanna says:

            Doug-have you read Thich Nhat Hanh’s Old Path White Clouds, which is a compilation of Buddha stories taking from the Pali Canon, supposedly without the stuff that’s supernatural?  Read the discussion thread on metaphysics and supernatural today, so I use that term loosely :)  Any opinions on it as a scholar? I’ve not read it, but came across it today in looking for a meatier biography of Siddhartha.

          • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

            Hi Jett,

            Sorry to say, I haven’t read that book. It doesn’t surprise me that contemporary practitioners would try a judicious rewriting of canonical stories. The suttas are wonderful, but they lie under a thick layer of repetition and analytic jargon. This works well in a monastic context, particularly one that involves memorization. But the suttas lose something for a contemporary, lay audience used to casual reading. So updating makes a lot of sense. And if you’re going to update, might as well edit.

            Again, though, I would distinguish that from scholarship.

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