“The Story of God” – Do Buddhists Believe in Miracles?

“The Story of God” – Do Buddhists Believe in Miracles? May 4, 2016

This is, once again, one of those questions that requires some clarification before an answer can be given. And even then, the answer will come with caveats. First, for Buddhists, the concept of ‘miracle’ wouldn’t involve the intervention of a Creator God. If we were to use the term for Buddhists, we would make clear that what some Buddhists might consider ‘miracles’ could also be called ‘supernormal’, as opposed to ‘supernatural’.  This is because Buddhist cosmology does not split the natural realm of humans from a supernatural one; instead six (sometimes five) realms of being are described which include gods, titans, humans, animals, hungry ghosts, and hell denizens.

While one doesn’t normally encounter beings from other realms (except animals, of course) in day to day life, a realized being such as the Buddha indeed could encounter such beings and, according to Pali scriptures, regularly did, leading to one of his titles being, “teacher of gods and men.”

So the cosmos is a bit more fluid. Spirits, sometimes pleasant, sometimes demonic in nature, could appear at any time. Are these miracles? I’d lean toward saying no. They are supernormal from a Buddhist view, and probably supernatural, or just superstitious from a Westerner’s point of view. As these two (Buddhist vs Western) viewpoints intersected over the past two hundred years or so, the belief in supernormal generally lost out to a more naturalistic worldview. However, that’s not to say that no modern Buddhists believe in the supernormal.

So, that brings us to this week’s “The Story of God” (airing May 8 on National Geographic). Morgan Freeman begins as he has so often, with a personal story about surviving severe pneumonia in his teens. Was it youthful vigor, some luck, and modern medicine that saved him? Or was it God/a miracle?

We hear the story of Alcides Moreno, a window washer who plunged 47 stories in NY City and survived to tell the tale. Usually 10 stories is not survivable. Falling 47 stories and surviving, barely: the only word that could fully describe him for many was “Miracle.” When asked about this, Alcides has difficulty though. This is because his younger brother was with him in the fall, and he died on impact. Pondering the event, Freeman asks if there is some entity that makes the choice – one brother and not the other – or “do we live with randomness just pure mindless randomness?

Freeman’s next visit is to a Jewish family in Jerusalem celebrating Passover. There he meets Rabbi Maya Leibovich, Israel’s first native-born female rabbi. There, rather than taking the Bible as a literal book of history, Rabbi Leibovich tells us that “the Bible is a book of ideas. The question is, what can we learn from it? What can we take into our own life?”

Our Buddhist content this week begins with a quick segment of footage showing Buddhists in Hong Kong who light incense before a statue of Guanyin, “who they hope will grant them medical cures, a spouse, or good grades.”

The science segment brings us to Danny Oppenheimer, a psychology professor who says many of our so called “miracles” are just random chance. Freeman suggests that something happening only about 1 in a billion times (or having 1 in a billion odds) is what he’d classify as a miracle. Oppenheimer flips six cards from a deck, explaining that THIS set of six only comes up about one in 14 billion times, thus making it even rarer than a 1 in a billion scenario. Is it a miracle, or just another random assortment that we can give meaning to as special?

Spanning a long history of Roman religion, Freeman takes us from ancient Mithraism to modern Catholicism before consulting a Taoist fate calculator and traveling to Cairo’s Qalawun complex, a hospital founded in the 1280s.

We are then taken to Tom Renfro a physician and cancer survivor who attributes his recovery to his faith and the prayers of his community. You can see his story on youtube here:

Hemant Mehta over at the Friendly Atheist wrote about his “miracle” recovery back in 2014:

Dr. Tom Renfro nearly died from cancer 17 years ago. He took drugs. He had chemotherapy. And then… his tumors were gone.

Time to thank the doct–wait, what?

I think it’s a gift of God. I think it’s a miracle that God did in my life. How else can you explain it?” asked Dr. Renfro.

Umm… Doctors? Drugs? Chemo? Something you haven’t figured out yet? In any case, God doesn’t poof away anyone’s tumors.

He was back in church just two weeks later.

“They carried me. I had to learn to walk again. I was very weak still, physically weak.” “I stood up in front of the congregation and I told them, I said, what you’re looking at, is what you’ve been praying for.” “You wanted a miracle of God and this is what He’s done. And I am here today because of the prayers that you prayed.”

Also, because of the doctors, drugs, and chemo.

It was great to see Candy Gunther Brown, an Indiana University professor, in the segment. She and I were on a panel last fall looking at questions of ethics in mindfulness at the American Academy of Religion conference. Her appearance is short, and limited to a few good questions, echoing a bit of what Hemant wrote: “do you ever wonder, did the chemotherapy just work better than the doctors expected it to work?” And Freeman concludes the segment by suggesting that what we call miracles tend to start in the mind, seguing nicely into a return to Buddhism and Bodhgaya.

Redressing the Buddha inside the Mahabodhi stupa, Bodhgaya, India (photo by the author, 2014)
Redressing the Buddha inside the Mahabodhi stupa, Bodhgaya, India (photo by the author, 2014)

There he meets Tibetan monk Losang Tenpa (aka Ven. Kabir Saxena), who spends time each year at the Antioch Buddhist Studies in India program I taught on in 2010 and 2014. Last time I was there he offered a wonderfully down-to-earth, and much appreciated by the students, explanation of the wisdom chapter of Shantideva’s “Guide to the Bodhisattva Path“.

Kabir explains to Freeman that the “miracles” of the Buddha were achieved through the power of exercising his mind, a power available to any of us should we take up the practice. Freeman notes, “For Buddhists, years of mental training, and showing love and compassion to others, can free them from suffering. Walking around this temple, you feel like a miracle really could happen. The miracle of people being content with their lives; people getting along together.”

A view of the Bodhi tree where the Buddha gained awakening (courtesy National Geographic)
A view of the Bodhi tree where the Buddha gained awakening (courtesy National Geographic)

Kabir then takes Freeman to Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche, who is sat among the latest group of Antioch students. Rinpoche gives him the “shortcut” teaching: “we all need to care and love and respect each other. That is the source of happiness. Whoever has that, their journey is good. Whoever does not keep that in their heart, journey is not good.”

In summing up, Freeman, walking with Kabir around the Mahabodhi temple, says, “a lot of religions are miracle based… ah, you don’t do miracles?”

Kabir responds, “What’s a miracle? I mean, flying in the sky? Is that a miracle? Bugs do it.”

“We tend to think of miracles as some sort of divine thing; something that gives us proof of God.”

Kabir’s response, in his delightful and usual common sense way, is that if you ask mystics from any tradition, they’ll tell you that God really is in here; so if we want a miracle, let’s not fixate on “people levitating 3 inches off their butts – which is stupid” but instead “let’s stick to the real miracle, which is to transform the human mind, really.”

This seems to satisfy Freeman. And I think it is the view of most Buddhists in the West today. You want a miracle? Focus your mind.

Theravadin monks at the Mahabodhi Stupa.
Theravadin monks at the Mahabodhi Stupa (photo by the author, 2010).

But scholars should rightly note that the history of Buddhism is filled with stories, from the Buddha to the present day, of beings taming dragons, flying through the sky, calming wild animals with loving kindness, communing with gods from India to Japan, and finding blessings or luck in everything from the relics of revered teachers to dolls.

As I wrote in my discussion of Buddhism and creation, the story coming from Buddhism can be read at many levels, from literalism to Kabir’s description of the mystic, where the ultimate teaching is found within. Such a variety of readings and flexibility of interpretation is part of what keeps Buddhism, like other religions, alive in a changing world and vibrant in varying cultures. And, it is what allows for comparisons of religions as well as borrowing and sharing of ideas. And it is only in ignorance of this breadth of interpretation that allows many to claim possession of the one true understanding or practice in a religion.

This series has been eye-opening and a joy to watch because it hasn’t given any one true interpretation, but has instead invited us into the hearts and minds of a few living versions of the world’s great religions, sparking – I hope – a journey that will last a lifetime.

(You can also read my discussions of evil and apocalypse from the series.)

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