Saturday, May 22, 2010

Miracles sans miracles

Thanks to a Facebook post by Nella Lou, I found the online magazine 21C. I immediately gravitated to an article there about the late-beat-author William S. Burroughs. I have several of Burroughs’ books, some true first editions. I collect books and Burroughs is one of the authors I focus on for my collection. The article I saw was from a 1991 interview with Burroughs, and there is one particular comment by the late-author that really stood out.

“Who was Christ? Did he actually perform the miracles attributed to him? Yes, I think he did. As you know, the Buddhists are very, very dubious of miracles. They say, ‘If you can, don’t’. Because you’re disturbing the natural order, interfering with the natural order, with incalculable long range results. And also, very often, the healer or miracle man is motivated by self-glorification – regrettable, reprehensible, self-glorification. So there’s a lot to be said for that.”

Yes, believe it or not, there is no real reason why a Buddhist would doubt that Christ performed miracles in his day. Granted, there are Buddhists who think references to miracles in the Buddhist canon, or that the Buddha was endowed with superhuman powers – paranormal powers, if you please – are nothing but rubbish. And there’s probably good reason for that, and that is most of us view with great skepticism those who assert they have paranormal powers; many of us call such people charlatans because these folks tend only to show their alleged powers for profit.

So Burroughs was right to point out that the Buddha taught his followers should they reach states of concentration that such paranormal powers are realized to not become beguiled by those abilities. Attachment to these powers will derail one’s progress on the path.

There are many suttas that describe these powers, and probably even more suttas that instruct followers to ignore them, or if they are used at all for skillful purposes, to do so discreetly. A couple of these suttas deal with a particular monk who left the Sangha in part because he was disappointed by the Buddha’s refusal to use these powers openly and teach others how to use them.

When Sunakkhatta left the Sangha, he began to talk trash about the Buddha to other intellectuals and Brahmins at the time, and this malicious gossip was overheard by some of the Buddha’s bhikkhus, who then relayed the information back to the Buddha (see the Maha-sihanada Sutta: The Great Discourse on the Lion's Roar, and the Patika Sutta for more about Sunakkhatta).

The Buddha was unconcerned with Sunakkhatta’s attempts at slander.

“Sariputta, the misguided man Sunakkhatta is angry, and his words are spoken out of anger. Thinking to discredit the Tathagata, he actually praises him; for it is a praise of the Tathagata to say of him: ‘When he teaches the Dhamma to anyone, it leads him when he practices it to the complete destruction of suffering.’ … Sariputta, this misguided man Sunakkhatta will never infer of me … ‘That Blessed One enjoys the various kinds of supernormal power…’”

What I find interesting about these suttas as well is that they describe in a somewhat quiet manner – at least perhaps for us today – how other traditions or schools of Buddhism may have started and evolved. Some monk along the way decided he knew better than the Buddha did, or he wanted to know more about something the Buddha refused to teach about, and so the monk leaves and collects his own followers who then focus on whatever the monk thinks is important. There are many other suttas that allude to this, one of my favorites being the Cula-Assapura Sutta (MN 40).

In this discourse, the Buddha ridicules notions that one can become a better person and know perfection solely by becoming a naked recluse, or donning a particular patchwork cloak, or by becoming “a reciter of incantations,” (hmm, like maybe chanting something over and over again?) believing that these activities in and of themselves lead to the abandonment of the taints and eventually to Nibbana. The Buddha’s litany of examples are pretty funny as he rips off the idea that if it were that simple, then everyone would be running around naked or wearing the same cloth or reciting the same incantations and everyone would be completely free from all the taints; in other words, if it were that simple, we’d all be (as R.E.M. puts it) shiny happy people.

The practice of Buddhism is described as following a path for a very good reason. Like following any path, if you stay on track, you will reach your destination. Become distracted by sites off the path and you stray, you may become lost, or even die, never to return to the path. Or you might find a particular spot on the path and feel a desire that you needn’t go any further. Hence, you become stuck, failing to reach the true end of the path.

Which is why the Buddha said to his followers there are many things – ideas, beliefs, concepts, fabrications – out there in the world we can know about, but knowing them will not end suffering and lead to liberation; hence, the Buddha did not teach them, nor did he ever promise that he would.

‘A few days ago, Sunakkhatta came to me, saluted me, sat down to one side and said: “Lord, I am leaving the Blessed Lord, I am no longer under the Lord’s rule.” So I said to him: “Well, Sunakkhatta, did I ever say to you: ‘Come, Sunakkhatta, be under my rule’?”
“No Lord.”
“Or did you ever say to me: ‘Lord , I will be under your rule’?”
“No Lord.”
“So, Sunakkhatta, if I did not say that to you and you did not say that to me – you foolish man, who are you and what are you giving up? Consider, foolish man, how far the fault is yours.”
‘“Well, Lord, you have not performed any miracles.”
“And did I ever say to you: ‘Come under my rule and I will perform miracles for you’?”
“No Lord.”
“Or did you ever say to me: ‘Lord, I will be under your rule if you will perform miracles for me’?”
“No Lord.”
“Then it appears, Sunakkhatta, that I made no such promises, and you made no such conditions. Such being the case, you foolish man, who are you and what are you giving up?
‘“What do you think, Sunakkhatta? Whether miracles are performed or not – is it the purpose of my teaching Dhamma to lead whoever practices it to the total destruction of suffering?”
“It is, Lord.”
So, Sunakkhatta, whether miracles are performed or not, the purpose of my teaching Dhamma is to lead whoever practices it to the total destruction of suffering. Then what purpose would the performance of miracles server? Consider, you foolish man, how far the fault is yours.”
‘“Well, Lord, you do not teach the beginning of things.”
“And did I ever say to you: ‘Come under my rule and I will teach you the beginning of things’?”
“No, Lord.”
“…Such being the case, you foolish man, who are you and what are you giving up?”

The image displayed with this post is courtesy of my friend Jimmy Huang.

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