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Buddhadharma : Fall 2008
buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly fall 2 0 08 40 Do You Believe in Miracles? Debating the Supernatural in Buddhism IntroductIon by andy karr forum • ari goldfield • judy lief • glenn wallis • The Transcendent Conqueror said: The world may debate with me, but I do not debate with the world. Whatever is asserted to exist in the world, I will also assert to exist. Whatever is asserted not to exist in the world, I will also assert not to exist. —from the Ratnakuta Sutra (Heap of Jewels Sutra) Why does the Buddha go along with the world’s opinions? Because he is not bound by concepts of existence and non- existence, of what is possible and what is not possible. If the world accepts magic and miracles, the Buddha teaches from that perspective. If the world accepts the laws of physics, he teaches from that perspective. From his own perspective, the Buddha holds no views about reality. That’s why he’s called the Transcendent Conqueror. We, on the other hand, are bound by our thoughts. Our opinions about magic and miracles reveal a lot about our concepts of what is, and is not, possible in the phenom- enal world. That’s why this panel discussion is so important. When we examine and challenge our beliefs about reality, our subtle assumptions can be exposed, and we can see how we are bound by them. As a teenager, I was entranced with Eugen Herrigel’s won- derful book, Zen in the Art of Archery. His account of the archer hitting the center of the target in complete darkness intrigued me and inspired me to learn more about Zen. Later on, stories of the great yogi Milarepa’s extraordinary com- bats with demons and logicians in the Land of Snows fueled my faith and enthusiasm for Buddhist practice. Even as they inspired me, these miraculous stories raised questions about the nature of reality that I’ve pondered for years. I’ve found that we can take these reports of magic and miracles as sources of inspiration, and at the same time reflect on how such events could actually happen. This might seem contradictory, but in practice it is quite effective. If we ask ourselves, as these panelists do, are these stories allegories, symbolic representations, or factual descriptions? Do they con- tradict some inviolable natural laws? Are they fakes, fairy tales, or genuine achievements?—these contemplations can introduce chinks in the confining armor of our network of concepts. One definition of miracles is that they are extraordinary events that go beyond natural or scientific laws. They are supernatural. In the ancient world, there was consensus about the natural and supernatural: the boundary between the two was fluid. People believed that unseen beings inhabited and animated the landscape, and that extraordinary individuals were capable of superhuman exploits. In those times, miracu- lous stories inspired faith and respect. They did not contradict deeply held beliefs about what was possible in the natural world. The ancients felt no need to question whether Brahma actually interceded with the Buddha to encourage him to turn the wheel of dharma. Stories that Nagarjuna lived for six hundred years and visited the realm of the nagas to retrieve the Prajnaparamita Sutras merely confirmed that his teach- ings were marvelous and true. In this secular/scientific/rational/spiritual/postmodern mod- ern age, things are not so simple. Tales of miraculous powers can inspire as much doubt as faith, and expose major fault lines in our culture. We need to turn this confusion to our advantage by using the conflict of views to arrive at the place beyond views. If we glimpse the way we cling to “exists” and “does not exist,” “possible” and “not possible,” and rest in the mind that is beyond such polarities, we can see what it is like to abandon all views and experience what Glenn Wallis refers to in the discussion as “a direct encounter with reality.” This is ultimately what the Buddha points out. To a contemporary ear, the term “miracle” points to the supernatural and superhuman, the extraordinary and highly improbable, the amazing and outstanding. There is another sense of the word that could be more interesting for contem- porary Buddhists. Miracle originally comes from the Latin miraculum, meaning “object of wonder.” I think all our pan- elists would agree that the greatest miracle is freedom from bondage, directly experiencing reality, fresh, just as it is. This is the miracle the Buddha continuously demonstrates. Andy KArr is the author of Contemplating Reality: A Practitioner’s Guide to the View in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism (Shambhala). (facingpage)WilliamSturgiSBigeloWcollection,11.6312.photograph©2008muSeumoffineartS,BoSton