Sunday, 25 January 2015

Buddhist Thaumaturgy or Thaumaturgy in Buddhism

I am sure some scholars would disapprove my use of the term “Buddhist Thaumaturgy,” perhaps with the argument that there is no such thing as “miracle-working,” “miracle,” “marvel,” and “magic” in Buddhism.  While it is true that there is no such thing as a Creator God who acts as a source of supernatural entities, events, or activities, and while we can understand why some of us may not like to have Thaumaturgy in Buddhism because it does not suit the image of Buddhism that we may have created ourselves, namely, Buddhism as a form of pure rationalism, it is not true that there are no elements of “miracles” and “miracle-working” in Buddhism. As far as I see, Buddhism seems to take for granted the existence of “miracle,” “marvel,” “magic,” “mystery,” “sorcery,” and the like, as some kind of “supernatural” phenomenon or reality. These realities are “supernatural” only in relative perspectives. That is, an entity, reality, or activity, is regarded as a “miracle,” “marvel,” or “magic,”  or “mystery” by normal mortals only insofar as such an entity, reality, activity, or, the underlying mechanism, appears to lie beyond their domain of cognition, conception, and explanation. From the perspectives of those who see through the mechanism of pratītyasamutpāda underlying any entity, reality, activity, there is nothing marvelous, magical, or mysterious about anything. In other words, as scientists might say, there is a logical or rational explanation to everything including magics and miracles.

While the existence of magic or marvel is not denied in Buddhism, its value, status, or role is relegated. Only a limited instrumental value is attributed to the magical means or power. It may be supernatural but fundamentally worldly (laukika: ’jig rten pa) in its nature, function, and scope, even when employed by a buddha or an arhant for beneficial purposes. A buddha, for example, can never put someone in a nirvāṇic state through his miraculous powers. If he could, he would have done that already. It is merely a pre-product or byproduct of one’s spiritual accomplishment and realization. Therefore, the higher one’s spiritual accomplishment is the greater would be one’s magical power. Nobody, from a Buddhist perspective, can outdo the magical feats of the Buddha or a buddha. As benevolent and beneficent as he is, however, he would never misuse his magical powers. If he sees that his magical feats would benefit sentient beings, he would demonstrate them. A Buddhist reinterpretation (or relativization) of magical and miraculous prowess and power would be thus: The greatest magical feat would be the elimination, transformation, or cognitive penetration of one’s intellectual-emotional defilements (kleśa: nyon mongs pa) as a result of which one obtains complete freedom from the bondage of saṃsāra. One who can do this would be a real magician,  or the greatest magician ever. 

Magical power is thus not denied in Buddhism but its value is relegated. But admittedly, it is also true for Buddhism that absolute power can corrupt one absolutely, the primum mobile of any form of corruption, according to Buddhism, being (negative) egoism characterized by lack of benevolence and beneficence. Magical power is seen as a powerful tool. One can wield one’s tool constructively or destructively; for benevolent or malevolent purposes; with beneficent or maleficent motives. Magic employed for a malevolent and destructive purpose with a maleficent motive may be considered “black magic.” Magic employed for a benevolent and constructive purpose with a beneficent motive may be considered “white magic.” Who can judge all these? It is often difficult to judge. In the end, a thaumaturgist alone should be his or her own witness and judge. A thaumaturgist alone is responsible for his or her thaumaturgy.

In Buddhist history and literature, we find ample accounts of the Buddha and his disciples demonstrating magical prowess and feats. The supernormal powers of the Buddha and his disciples are not considered abnormal in Buddhism. Each Buddhist society may have its own accounts of masters, saints, and yogins demonstrating magical feats. Tibetan Buddhist society is no exception. Particularly, the legendary accounts of Padmasambhava and his disciples are full of them. But this is not limited to rNying-ma school alone. Mi-la-ras-pa is known for the practice of black magic—which he is said to have learnt from a rNying-ma tāntrika (sngags pa)—the aftermath of which caused a turning point in his spiritual career. The legends of Rwa-lo-tsā-ba, for example, also contain full of accounts of he employing his magical powers to “liberate” (bsgral) thirteen bodhisattvas who have attained one of ten bodhisattva stages and thirteen translators of his standing (Shin rgyas, vol. 10, p. 74). He is said to have killed Mar-pa’s son Dharma-mdo-sde but he could not kill Mi-la-ras-pa. It is said that he could not kill Lang-lab, too, who was a shepherd and a Vajrakīla adept.

Where, according to Buddhism, should the magical power come from? There is a collective expression in Tibetan Buddhism: “three kinds of inconceivable [power]” (bsam gyis mi khyab pa gsum), namely, “inconceivable power of substance (i.e. of bodily or material entities)” (rzdas kyi nus pa bsam gyis mi khyab pa), “inconceivable power of mantras (i.e. of speech)” (sngags kyi nus pa bsam gyis mi khyab pa), and “inconceivable power of meditative concentration (i.e. of mind)” (ting nge ’dzin gyi nus pa bsam gyis mi khyab pa). If we are not convinced of the power of substance, we might just think of the nuclear bomb, venom, or potassium cyanid. If we are not convinced of the power of speech, we might try verbally insulting someone and see what happens. If we are not convinced of the power of concentration, we might try doing things after getting totally drunk. A Buddhist thaumaturgist might use one or a combination of these three means or powers, which would then be considered “magical” or “marvelous” by ordinary mortals like myself.



  1. Dear Dorji,

    thank you for the fine stimulations; attached some deliberations, perhaps also workable for others (in 3 parts).

    There can be no doubt or suspicion concerning the truthfulness of thaumaturgical dexterities owing to being´s infinite potentialities as such [provided that it is recognized through pratītyasamutpāda]. But we could (should) ask ourselves (as you already carefully do it) about the meaningfulness and consequential real “usefulness“ of thaumaturgical practices. As you decidedly observed, without “a minimum of rational protection“ such “supernormal faculties“ would be of no wise help.

    But why, identifiable in our evolutionary, multilayered and fantastic developments, do we always (try to) return to or fall back on such things as “miracle-workings“?
    What other could we hastily say, we all feel, it´s our natural instinct (inner refuge) to accept the all-pervading factor of ultimate inexplicability of being´s being.

    So, if we are already within this “blessedly suffusing acceptance of reality”, why to write thousands of billions of philosophical pages to explain the unexplainable? Because the adequate, cognitive handling of this concession, well, that´s another matter. The immemorial conflictive tension between theory and practice constantly obsesses us.
    As soon as the intellect (spellbindingly) begins to rumble, to conceive, to arrange etc., our unbiased curiosity promptly centrifugates our thinking up to the most subtle, highly controversial, metaphysical interrogations about the reason of being itself, the famous “why-questions“ (“the dark hole of existence”), as, for example, formulated by Leibniz (1646 – 1716):

    “Why is there something and not nothing?“*

    *[Indeed the question is already perfused by a deeply rooted psychic disjunction, namely: Does such a quest denote “the philosophical madness-trap or -trip“ of an undiscerning/perverse mental obsession (“the intellectual lure“) or is it the discerning/stout-hearted orientation towards “liberating omniscience“ (“the intellectual challenge“)] ?

  2. 2)
    Thereby the philosophically branded/stigmatized notion of “Creator God“ cannot simply be “bypassed“ or “knocked down“ through “negative/reduction-ad-absurdum reasonings“. A philosopher already has exceeded/transcended the negative approach of inquiry; now “the positively attempted proceeding“ (the blessed or consecrated validation, expressible as the empirical revelation/manifestation) could be “perhaps profitably/conducively“ explored (“the coming back“) and, in doing so, will induce vast “philosophical labours“ for someone of openhearted character to find the “ultimate answer“ in the endeavour of common agreement!

    Now, already in this regard alone, are we sure to understand this sensitive term (“God“) in the “exact/accurate“ religio-philosophical formulation as intended by “defenders of God“? You will appreciate that I have my reservations about this. What is the real inspiration behind such an appearing (or even appealing) philosophical immunity (“God”)? How (in this sense) would a Buddhist philosopher interpret the concept/idea/realization of “Adi-Buddha“ or “svābhāvikakāya“ or “prabhāsvara“, etc.?
    Is philosophical research, in principle, a question about “creation“ (forward-vision of a continuous/cyclical genesis) or about “destruction“ (backwards-vision of an instantly/momentary effacement)?
    I think, it depends on the angle of our philosophical time-rotation to recover, validate and eventually implement cognitive tolerance/readiness (anutpattidharmakṣānti)!

    But again (for heaven´s sake, we must break this terrible vicious circle…) here we feel shattered between ingenious rationality and reverential simplicity. As soon as a philosopher aims to tackle this issue his/her already matured “thought-balance“ becomes destabilized by the infinite net of contextually sweeping arguments and counterarguments to ponder.
    No wonder, when brought to the utmost of bearable approval, the redemptive cognitive withdrawal in personal silence (just as Buddha did) appears to be unavoidable.*
    * (The Buddhist philosophical term “amanasikāra“ sounds very promising to describe the inner feeling or sense of cognitive belonging…).

  3. 3)
    But, coming back to “magical powers“ and “marvels“, what indeed will happen if we all immediately could optionally use “magical powers“?
    What would a world look like? How would our lifes be different if all imaginable miracle-working were possible “at the touch of a mental button?” – Hmmm, sounds like “Alice in Wonderland“ or the like. Nothing would be other, or “better“…; likewise, we would be torn between “necessity“ and “freedom“ owing to the “unwilling will“ and awareness of each other.

    Hence, as generally accepted religious traditions prudently recommend, the “true marvel“ is to cut selflessly (“transcending egoism“) through “necessity“ (the ontological thrownness) and “freedom“ (the available decision power). The philosophical gem for this responsibility-performance lies hidden inside the notion of “identity“.

    But – we must again confess – the theoretical exploration and practical-wholesome application of this “concept of identity“ seems to perplex even thinkers with highest motivations. So what to do?

    From the religious (Buddhist) perspective and evidently “without harming others in their development“ Tsongkhapa would say: “Trust authentic transmissions and train, train, train!” – and slowly but surely the “marvel“ or “magical power“ will become true!*

    *train [in “renunciation“ (śūnyatā-impetus/penetration/insight)]
    train [in “altruisitic mind/striving of/for enlightenment“ (bodhicitta), śūnyatā-realization]
    train [in “reality-apprehension“ (tathatā, yathābhūtaṃ, śūnyatā-compatibility)]

    sincerely, mikael.

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