John Strong: "When are Miracles Okay? Buddhist Rules against Displays of Supernatural Powers."
Western scholars in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were inclined to view Buddhism as a “rational religion” requiring no belief in the supernatural. In conjunction with this, they commonly proclaimed the Buddha to have been categorically opposed to his disciples’ display of extraordinary powers (“miracles”) in public, citing a number of texts (e.g., the story of Piṇḍola and the Kevaddha sutta) in supposed support of this position. Such “evidence,” however, flies in the face of a number of other stories in which the Buddha asks his disciples to do precisely what he apparently has forbidden or criticized. In this paper I propose to reexamine the texts and the contexts of the various Vinaya rules regarding extraordinary powers, as well as canonical categorizations of miracles to suggest a rather different conclusion about the place, purpose, and legitimacy of miraculous powers in Buddhism. What made miracles “wrong” in Buddhism was not their public display per se, but a particular set of mitigating circumstances in which that public display sometimes took place.
John Strong is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Religion at Bates College. Trained at Oberlin, Hartford Seminary Foundation and Chicago, he has also held visiting appointments at Notre Dame, Peradeniya, Harvard, Chicago, Princeton and Stanford. America's leading authority on Buddhist biographical traditions, and especially on the life of the Buddha himself, he is the author of The Legend of King Aśoka (1983), The Legend and Cult of Upagupta (1991), The Experience of Buddhism (1994), The Buddha: A Short Biography (2001), and Relics of the Buddha (2004), as well as numerous articles on many different aspects of Buddhism.