The Buddha's Manifesto on Miracles and Revelation

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.