Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Miracles of the Buddha and the Modern Buddhist

                Several years ago I was writing for or at least contributed to a Buddhist website which I believe was named “The Kalachakra  this website was put together by a man in Holland whose name is I recall was Rudy. It was perhaps one of the best Buddhist websites I have ever read. Rudy was nice enough to have different sections of the website set up for different schools of Buddhism. Of course The Kalachakra is in fact a very advanced teaching in Tibetan Buddhism. But Rudy was nice enough have different parts of his website dedicated to the other teachings and schools of Buddhism.  Perhaps the saddest thing about this website was that eventually it was destroyed by hackers who for some reason despised Buddhism in all its forms.  Rudy tried to rebuild the website several times but the anti-Buddhist hackers just would not let it stand, a wonderful example of 21st century religious intolerance.
         One of the sections on the website was dedicated to what the Tibetan Buddhist scholars referred to as Hinayana Buddhism but which is more properly called the Theravada tradition, which continues as the main form of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, but some scholars deny that the term included Theravada Buddhism. In 1950 the World Fellowship of Buddhists declared that the term H─źnayana should not be used when referring to any form of Buddhism existing today. This being because Hinayana is now consider a derogatory term, since in Sanskrit it means smaller vehicle which is often also translated as inferior.  Theravada Buddhism was once simply called Southern Buddhism by English scholars trying to study the history of Buddhism. It’s cannon is perhaps the oldest written Buddhist scriptures that we presently have and is therefore sometimes simply referred to as the Buddhism of the elders.
            One of the things that marks the Theravada sutras and writings is there reciting of the many miracles that Buddha was supposed to have performed in his lifetime. This is not to say that the other schools of Buddhism that came later did not themselves recite many unbelievable miracles performed by the Buddha. It is my observation that one of the many stumbling blocks that almost all religions throw up for the modern mind is the insistence that all their founders performed a horde of miracles while they walked the earth. Both the Bible and the Koran are chock-full of an almost  endless list of miracles performed by Jesus or Moses and of course the founder of Islam Mohamed. I think it’s fair to say that almost every religion seems to find it a necessity to recite these miracles as proof of the wonder, the power and the divinity of their founders and Buddhism is no exception. The population of the earth has expanded to the billions but still many of those billions believe firmly in the miracles performed by their founders and their Saints. While a larger and larger number of people who have converted to the more materialistic religion of science see these claims of miraculous acts as proof that these religions are composed primarily of fairytales.  The great Christian writer CS Lewis once noted that if Christianity was simply based on the teachings of Christ and not on Christ’s divinity and his miraculous powers as a son of God than Christianity would be meaningless.
            So one day I logged onto The Kalachakra website and went over to the section that was provided for followers of the Theravada school to chat and ask questions concerning their teachings. Unfortunately Theravada Buddhism is not well distributed in the European and in Western countries so the person assigned to supervise that section did not in fact practice that school of Buddhism and was terribly ignorant of the schools teaching. Of course these people that were assigned to the sections were there primarily to keep people from posting advertisements for products, to keep members of the website from flaming each other, and to act as a referee over any disputes that arose in the chat rooms. 
            A few days before this one of the very few persons on the website who actually practiced Theravadan Buddhism had begun to ask questions concerning several of the miracles recited in the Pali canon.  I’d done my best to try to answer these questions for this person and even done quite a bit of research to try to help them along. But on this day the person assigned to oversee this section lost control of herself and flamed this  member to the sky and his belief  in Buddhist miracles.   She of course argued that these are all fairytales and had no place on a website concerning modern Buddhism. This new member who I believe was from Malaysia became terribly offended, informed her that he had been taught these stories from the time he was a small child by the Buddhist monks in his country and they were not fairytales but the absolute truth, then he quit the website.
            Of course when I and Rudy saw this we ask her to give up her position monitoring the threads on that section. But it was too late almost everyone who was a member of that section quit the website right after that.  It’s just a very hard for modern Western Buddhist to give the Buddhist who were brought up in countries where Buddhism was the primary religion the slack and tolerance that all Buddhist should have towards the different teachings from the different countries that practice Buddhism. The fact is we just can’t deal with miracles. This is especially true among Western practitioners of Zen.
            Buddhism is over 2500 years old, it’s a basic teachings fit very well with the modern teachings of our materialistic and scientific education in the West. But most Western Buddhist would just rather ignore the old sutras which contain all these miracles and superpowers attributed to the Buddha. And one of the fascinating things about Buddha himself is that he reportedly responded to any request for a miracle by saying “ I dislike them, saying he rejected and  despised them, and refused to comply to such a request. And on several occasions Buddha is quoted as warning his listeners that miraculous powers should not be the reason for practicing his path. And in several places he is quoted as saying that people should not believe his teachings either because of any miraculous thing it done or because of his divine authority. 
            Despite this the sutras often recite miracles that he supposedly performed such as flying, building a jeweled archway in the sky and pacing back and forth on it for days. Generally speaking if we sum up most of the sutras that talk about his powers we find eight really glaring miracles that he was to have performed.
            The first miracle of courses when he was born he supposedly stood up took seven steps to the north and gave a speech: 

            "I am chief of the world,
             Eldest am I in the world,
              Foremost am I in the world.
              This is the last birth.
              There is now no more coming to be."

            Quite a feat for a kid who just got born a few seconds before. Also rather amazing since he apparently didn’t remember making it and proceeded to live the next 30 years as your average everyday run of the mill totally pampered prince of one of the 15 kingdoms of India. Then ran away from home after the birth of his child to go find himself.
        Perhaps his second miracle was that he allegedly went into the world of the gods and explained his teachings to the chief Hindu God Brahma himself, who then begged him to give these teachings to the world.
            His third most famous miracle was when a jealous cousin of his released a giant bull elephant that had been tormented into madness by its keepers and set loose in the street to trample the Buddha into the ground.  But of course when the elephant reached Buddha rather than trampling him it calmed down then it  kneeled on one knee and let him stroke it's trunk.
            One of his fourth miracles was simply converting the water of a poisoned well into clear drinkable water.  In another story he walked on water, in yet another story he flew through the air with 500 others disciples to go have a chat with a king who want to learn about Buddhism. In fact his miraculous powers included super hearing divine seeing traveling through time and seeing all of his own past lives and remembering them all, and of course being several different places at once. 
            Just like many Catholics seem to have a need to believe in the miraculous powers of Jesus, and the Muslims who believe that the superpowers of Mohammed are essential to believing in Islam many Buddhist throughout the world have a need to believe that the Buddha was omniscient and basically had all the powers that Superman possessed and his comic books. 
            So now I’m coming to the crux of this whole post do we have to believe that Buddha attained superpowers when he woke up that day under the bodhi tree? Was CS Lewis correct when he said that the teachings of Jesus meant nothing if they weren’t backed up by superpowers and miracles? Of course my decision early on this question was that these tales of Buddhist miracles are  cultural artifacts and completely unnecessary to either believe or even consider when deciding to become a Buddhist.  Yet still today they are in fact a stumbling block to many people’s belief in Buddhism and many Western teachers simply act like the stories were never told because they know if they tell the stories their Western students will run away laughing. Then of course there are the literally thousands of people who seem to come to Buddhism because they believe that if they meditate long enough they will attain these superpowers.
            So now I’m going to tell you and old Buddhist story, it in fact does not concern the Buddha but rather two men lost in the desert. After several days both men were dying of thirst and then they had the great fortune to come across a great roaring River of pure water slicing through the desert. One of the men ran to the river and drank and quenches his thirst, while the other man sets on the riverbank and simply stares at the River. His companion looks at him and says what your problem, your dying of thirst here’s the River drink. The second man looks back and replies, but I could never drink all that water. I just can’t do it he says it’s too much for me. And then with the river in front of him he sets down and dies of thirst.  
            When it comes to the miracles of the Buddha and the teachings of the Buddha I suggest that you take the approach of the first man, even if you can’t drink the whole River drink what you can and leave the rest alone.